Earthquake Lessons from Chile

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Building damaged in 2010 Chilean earthquake

Building damaged in 2010 Chilean earthquake (photo from Wikipedia)

Last month I was one of 40 Seattle business, government, labor, and academic leaders on a study mission to Santiago and Valparaiso, Chile.*  One of my major reasons for going was to identify lessons from the recent Chilean experience with a major earthquake.  Chile, like Seattle, is on the Pacific Rim of Fire.  In February, 2010, Chileans experienced a devastating 8.8 magnitude earthquake.  Many electric, water, and sewer utilities were damaged.  81,000 homes were destroyed and 109,000 more were severely damaged, along with 221 bridges, 1554 kilometers of roads, and 3000 schools.  The morning after the earthquake, 1,250,000 children were unable to attend classes, and 800,000 people were homeless.   Losses totaled about $30 billion, equal to about 17% of Chile’s GDP.

Analysts suggest that this event was the most important in the history of modern earthquakes, because it was the first major test of modern building standards and of the ability of communities and government in an economically developed country to respond to and recover from an earthquake of this magnitude.

Here are some of the key lessons that I gleaned from discussions with Chilean officials and written assessments of the experience:

1.   Communities responded well to the disaster.

A.    Chile is sometimes described as a ‘seismic culture’, because it has experienced so many earthquakes, including the magnitude 9.5 earthquake of 1960, the most severe in modern history.  Volunteerism, preparedness, and community self-reliance are strongly rooted.  In Chile, all firefighters are volunteers, and being a volunteer firefighter carries so much prestige that applicants pay a fee to be one.

B.   The result was that people took action on their own initiative.  The medical community in the most severely stricken area of the country, which lost communications with the central government, responded without central control and successfully improvised and delivered medical responses to the 60,000 injured victims under “austere conditions” that included damaged buildings and loss of water and power.  Both the newly injured and existing critical care patients were managed well with minimal losses.  Most hospitals were up and operating within a day of the earthquake.

C.   Communities responded by sharing shelter and supplies with those who had suffered losses.  When the government opened congregate shelters, they were surprised at how few people took advantage of them, because people practiced ‘shelter in place’ by finding friends and relatives who were able to help them.

2.   On the other hand, the central government was slow to respond.

A.   A presidential transition was in process, with the new government scheduled to be inaugurated on March 11.  Many leadership posts were unfilled, and the outgoing government was hesitant to move decisively.

B.   The central government lacked good information, and made poor choices with the information it had.  The most crucial error involved a broadcast that no tsunami was expected.  Based on erroneous information, the government advised people who had gone to higher ground to return to their homes.  More than half of the deaths were attributed to the tsunami, and many of these were likely preventable.  Seven people have been convicted on criminal charges for failing to issue proper warnings.  Many lives were saved because some local authorities refused to believe the federal government and told people to evacuate (although in one city, the government properly ordered vessels to go out to sea, but unaccountably failed to alert residents).  However, the single largest loss of life due to the tsunami occurred on an island where people were camped on vacation:  there was no program in place to communicate with and alert tourists and other transient populations.

C.   Past experience with military dictatorship led the government to hesitate to order the military to take authority in devastated areas.  It was five days before external help reached the most damaged areas, and some looting took place, which shocked Chileans who thought their community cohesiveness would have prevented that.

3.   The effectiveness of modern building codes was decisively demonstrated.

A.   Half of the deaths were from the tsunami, very few from building collapse.

B.   Most of the deaths in buildings occurred in old-style adobe houses:  60% of the houses destroyed were adobe buildings.

C.   Of the 9,974 modern mid and high rises that had been constructed since 1985, when the new seismic codes took effect, only 35 had to be evacuated, and the few tall buildings that actually collapsed were those improperly sited on poor soils, which had been overlooked because of mistakes or fraud by the builder.  In one building that completely toppled over, most of the occupants survived because the framework of the rooms still met seismic standards and preserved the integrity of the individual apartments.

D.   A critical gap in standards was the failure to consider the role of major interior elements, such as air conditioning units, shelving systems, and office equipment.  Significant amounts of damage and injury were caused by interior systems that tore from walls or slammed around rooms.

4.   Recovery has been slow; ingenuous improvisation has helped.

A.   It took a month to restore utility services, and 90 days to restore schools with modular classrooms.

B.   Food began flowing to the affected area very rapidly, because the government already had a supply of standard 4×4 boxes of food used in its low income food programs, which could easily be dispatched for emergency use.

C.   65,000 units of prefabricated emergency temporary housing were assembled and deployed to allow people to reoccupy their properties long before they could repair or restore permanent houses.  The government has committed $3 billion to finance reconstruction of housing, using a set of model designs.

D.   Many businesses, industrial properties, and office and residential buildings were not designed to be resilient enough to be rapidly renovated and repaired after significant damage.  The long-term economic effects of the earthquake are still being felt by some people and areas, even though the Chilean economy as a whole has resumed its economic momentum.

5.   Effective insurance and liability systems are critical to long-term recovery.

A.   Only about 25% of the damage was insured, and the $7.5 billion in insurance settlements greatly exceeded the $4.3 million in premiums that had been collected in the past 30 years.  Participation in reinsurance plans was critical to the survival of the insurance system and to ensuring that claims were paid.

B.   The government stepped in with a mandatory adjustment system to ensure rapid settlement of claims.  In ten months, 99.8% of claims were settled.  Of 234,517 cases that were contested, only ten went to the litigation stage.

C.   Chile’s liability law makes construction companies liable for any damages for ten years after construction if building codes were not properly followed.  The few modern buildings that collapsed had generally been constructed improperly, and this law ensured that those major losses would be covered by the construction companies.

Some core messages for Seattle:

  1. We cannot overestimate the importance of a community that is prepared and ready to take individual and collective action in the immediate aftermath of a disaster.  We should redouble our efforts to work with our residents, businesses, and communities to give them the understanding and tools they need to be able to respond, and the confidence to take action.  This includes reemphasizing and expanding our efforts to support community building and developing strong connections among and within communities.
  2. Government, especially those responsible for immediate actions to ensure order and provide assistance (including decision makers), must be well-trained and practiced in order to be ready for decisive and swift response.
  3. Effective and resilient communications systems are essential, and people responsible for communication to the public must be well-trained and able to effectively interpret and communicate information under conditions when accurate data may be minimal.
  4. Building codes should be modified to ensure that buildings significantly at risk (in Seattle, these include unreinforced masonry and other older construction types) are retrofitted to meet modern standards.  Requirements for tie-downs and other policies should be reviewed to prevent damage to and from major interior elements (Chile is developing a model interior element code, which it will implement on a national level).
  5. The adequacy of the insurance system should be reviewed, and possible changes to insurance and liability laws considered.  Systems should be in place, such as the extended builder liability law in Chile, that ensure that building codes are complied with.
  6. The jury is still out on recovery strategies.  Continued efforts are required to ensure that the framework is in place to ensure rapid economic and social recovery from a disaster.


*The Council usually sends one or two representatives on these annual international study missions, and 2012 was my turn to be eligible to join the trip.  The core mission for these trips is developing connections with leaders and business representatives in other countries, and promoting international understanding and peaceful relationships.  We also look at specific issues, such as economic planning, education and health care systems, tourism and urban development strategies, and environmental issues.  One of the most interesting experiences was meeting with leaders of the ongoing student-led campaign for education and political reform – they gave us quite a different perspective from the government officials we met with.