March 10, 2010 // Uncategorized

Chileans unite as earthquake survivors struggle to rebuild their lives

By Barbara J. Fraser

LIMA, Peru (CNS) — While news reports highlighted the looting and violence that followed Chile’s massive earthquake, they overlooked the solidarity among ordinary people struggling to rebuild their homes and lives, church workers said.

For two days after the magnitude 8.8 earthquake struck Chile’s central coast Feb. 27, people were seen breaking into supermarkets and hauling away not just food and necessities but goods such as televisions and washing machines.

The looting stopped after President Michelle Bachelet ordered military troops to the stricken zone, a decision authorities said they made reluctantly because of the history of repression under the military dictatorship of former President Augusto Pinochet.

Government officials worried that televised scenes of looting would frighten tourists away from Chile. Tourism industry representatives reported many canceled reservations in Santiago and the country’s picturesque southern lake district and said they were planning a public relations campaign like the one Mexico launched after being hit by the swine flu epidemic in 2009.

The looting “has many interpretations,” Gabriela Gutierrez, who heads the Catholic Church’s social ministry and Caritas office in Concepcion, the largest city nearest the quake’s epicenter. “It isn’t easy to explain.”

Some commentators attributed the theft to economic inequality. Although Chile is one of Latin America’s wealthiest countries, there is also a significant income disparity. The wealthiest one-fifth of the population receives 62 percent of the income, while the poorest 20 percent receives just 3.3 percent.

Other observers believed there might be a simpler explanation.

“It’s a totally irrational response,” said Sister Margaret O’Rourke, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet from California, who has worked in Chile for 22 years.

“There are people who simply take advantage of other folks,” said Sister Eileen Smits, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet from St. Louis, who works with Sister Margaret.

“There’s also an insecurity” that may have led people who lost all their possessions to steal or take more than they needed and hoard it, Sister Eileen said. “People want to save what they have in case something else happens.”

Some people who moved into tents because their homes were damaged returned to find their houses ransacked, she said. Youths began to patrol some neighborhoods, leading to clashes with looters until police and troops restored order.

After Bachelet announced that looters would be prosecuted, stolen items, many still in boxes, appeared on the street in towns like Concepcion and Talca. Bachelet said March 8 about $2 million worth of merchandise had been returned.

Both Guti,rrez and Sister Eileen said the media’s focus on the looting overshadowed the mutual support among quake victims.

“If there’s one wonderful thing, it is our people’s solidarity,” Gutierrez said.

Throughout the devastated area, families organized “common pots,” cooking together to stretch their food rations. In Talca, large businesses contributed to two centers opened by the church to provide food and clothing to earthquake victims, Sister Eileen said.

The earthquake broke water lines, leaving many people without clean water. Some hauled unsafe water from lakes and streams, leading to fears of disease outbreaks. People on the outskirts of Concepcion who had wells began offering water to those whose supplies had been cut off, Gutierrez said.

Chileans abroad have also pitched in. On March 7, a telethon called “Chile aids Chile” raised $58 million for earthquake reconstruction, more than twice the amount organizers expected.

Near the epicenter, people were looking to the future with hope, Sister Eileen said.

People’s spirits are “very good,” she said.

“The sense is that we’re alive, God is good, we’ve survived, we’ve helped each other. It’s very uplifting to see how they bounce back so well.”

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