03.01.10

What Haiti Can Teach Chile

The Latin American quake was 500 times more powerful than the one that leveled Port-au-Prince. Joshua Robinson on how rescue workers now sifting the rubble can learn from Haiti’s experience.

Seven weeks after one of the deadliest earthquakes of the last 100 years pulverized Haiti, another one, 500 times more powerful, did the same to Chile. Now with two million people homeless and a death toll climbing over 700, the world is watching as aid workers from all over the country scramble to help. And the stories they tell once they get there sound eerily familiar.

Every corner is another cry for help, as desperate people sob for their families. Piles of rubble line the streets. Locals dig through them with nothing but their hands. The same scenes I witnessed last month in Port-au-Prince seem to be unfolding all over again nearly 4,000 miles away. There, the air was filled with the thick, pungent smell of death. It is a race against the clock to make sure the same stench doesn’t settle over Chile.

Click Image to View Our Gallery of the Devastation in Chile

The challenges of the two countries, of course, are bound to be different. The Haitian disaster leveled the dense, urban capital of a poverty-stricken nation, filled with shoddy buildings that were lucky to be standing in the first place. Chile’s quake, though stronger, struck a less densely populated area in a country that was better prepared.

But rescue workers who were there say that the still-fresh lessons of Haiti can be applied in Chile to start saving lives today.

Six American teams working in Port-au-Prince were able to dig out more than 40 survivors in the first 11 days after the earthquake. Working in eight to 12-man reconnaissance teams, they began identifying hospitals, schools, and multi-storey buildings that required their immediate attention. Then they pinpointed trapped survivors using dogs that were trained to pick up live human scent. They confirmed the discoveries by snaking listening devices and search cameras through tiny breaches in the concrete. Register a positive hit, and in came the full rescue squad with all the breaking equipment. Three or four hours later, the victim was out and rushed to medical attention.

Cari Pick: What I Saw in Chile The Haiti disaster marked the first time that American search and rescue teams were fully deployed for their original purpose—25 years after the first truly organized large-scale operation in the aftermath of a Mexico City earthquake.

“From the technical search, to the canine search, to the breaching and breaking, we’re on the right track,” said Dave Downey, a chief in the Miami-Dade Fire Department who led one of six American search and rescue teams under the umbrella of FEMA.

Locals, with both their knowledge and their hands, become a precious resource. “They understand their environment better then anyone else,” Shachar Zahavi, chairman of IsraAID, an Israeli NGO, wrote in an e-mail. They become guides to the rescue workers, pointing out buildings where they know people are stuck. And frequently, locals themselves become amateur rescue workers. The professionals can afford to leave people in less precarious situations to them and focus on the heavy-lifting jobs.

But in a strange way, Haiti’s abysmal construction standards facilitated the rescue efforts. Downey said his team found salt water and sand in the concrete mix, with no reinforced steel to speak of. “If you give me a building in Haiti and a building in Chile, I’m going to bust through the one in Haiti a heck of a lot faster than the one in Chile,” Menocal said. It stood in stark contrast to his experience at the World Trade Center, where he spent days fighting the tangled mess with a blowtorch and jackhammer to make any progress.

The thin concrete structures also meant than when the walls and ceilings came down, they broke into large slabs, often entombing people rather than crushing them. Under those conditions, they were able to survive well past the normal five-day limit that search and rescue teams normally set.

How to help those people once they are out of the rubble, however, remains a challenge that Chile is far better equipped for. For one, there are many more ways to get help into the country — Chile has the advantages of functional airports and not being an island. It will not have to deal with coordinating a never-ending chain of flights or U.S. military personnel taking over the only working runway at the airport, as they did briefly in Port-au-Prince.

Over the last decade, Chile has also invested time and money into preparing emergency measures for dealing with earthquakes, according to Nan Buzard, senior director of international response and programs for the American Red Cross. It is, after all, on one of the most geologically active spots on the plant. “Any disaster, you need a chain of command and decision-making,” she added. “All of that, I think, was lacking in Haiti.”

Despite the swarms of aid workers, people in tent cities all over Port-au-Prince still complain that there is enough food, water, and shelter. Buzard, who knew that the Red Cross had supplied nearly a third of all material aid to Haiti, was dumbfounded. It wasn’t until she went and saw the chaos for herself that she understood how people could miss the aid entirely. The scale of the city’s 500 densely packed camps made it clear.

“But I don’t think it’s going to happen in Chile,” she explained. “It’s a better organized country with much stronger infrastructure.”

CORRECTION: This article originally misstated the Chile quake was 30 times as powerful as Haiti's. It has been updated to 500 times.

Joshua Robinson is a freelance writer based in Manhattan. He graduated from Columbia in 2008 and has covered everything from the London stock exchange to the World Series.