Destruction seen everywhere in tsunami-hit Chilean port

March 8, 2010 11:57 pm 

By Alexander Manda

TALCAHUANO, Chile, March 8 — Angel Bustamente could not stop crying as he saw scenes of pervasive destruction in this port town, which was hit by a tsunami triggered by the Feb. 27 megaquake.

"The port is just dead," he told Xinhua on Sunday with tearful eyes, looking over a dock where trucks, containers and fishing boats all fell apart under the powerful force of nature.

"There is going to be terrible poverty here," he added.

Talcahuano was an industrial port in Chile's southern Maule region, importing food from overseas while exporting fish and manufacturing goods. There was also a shipyard that built boats for naval and commercial use.

All that has come to a stop since Chile was struck by a magnitude-8.8 earthquake and a tsunami, which drove 2.5-meter-high tidal wave into the port town.

"The port stops working, and people here will be jobless," said Francisco Bustamente, Angel's brother, a municipal official whose home is on the seafront.

"In the port, everything has been destroyed," he said.

Talcahuano port was used to store goods and containers on their way in and out of Chile. The impact of the tsunami has reduce many containers to twisted metals, and salty water has corroded the machines that had been used for transportation and manufacture only a week ago. Organic stuff has rotted down to a toxic mix of sulfuric acid and carbon.

A SECOND DISASTER

A second disaster — looting — brought further destruction to the town, Francisco Bustamente said.

"There used to be sugar and oil in the warehouses but all was looted," he said. "Everything has been taken away."

"People opened the containers and took everything they could: washing machines and plasma televisions," said Angel Bustamente, who used to work in the port.

He said he had to travel to nearby city Valparaiso to bring food and water to his brothers' family.

Looters here stopped short of using methods seen in Concepcion, where supermarkets were burned to destroy inventory records. Even so, officials estimate that it would take 10 years for Talcahuano to fully recover.

Angel Bustamente said the government has refrained from sending in troops to deal with the looters, because of memories of the 1973 to 1990 military dictatorship.

"It has been 20 years since military rule but they are still afraid, " he said.

However, "there were robberies, murders, rapes, everything you can imagine,and the government should have sent the military sooner," Angel Bustamente said.

Government reticence towards the military is understandable. Chile's President Michelle Bachelet was detained in Villa Grimaldi, an infamous army torture center, when she was a young woman. Her father, Alberto Bachelet, who had headed the nation's food distribution agency died in a military jail.

LOW CASUALTIES

Although infrastructure damage is severe, casualties in Talcahuano have been relatively low.

So far there have been only 20 deaths and 18 missing persons reported, said Jaime Romero Beltran, head of the town's emergency services.

The municipal government has been training people for such emergencies since 1835, when it was struck by a deadly tsunami, he said.

"People here have always known that if a quake is too strong for you to stand up and you live close to the sea, you must leave for the hills. More than 150 years of training is something that has helped a great deal," said the official.

Even so, Beltran believes that it will take at least 10 years for the town to fully recover. He hopes that the disaster could be turned into an opportunity for infrastructure improvement. But recovery will be difficult in the short run, he added.

"This is a very special situation. There is a new team taking over the nation, but also a change of philosophy alongside a change of staff," the official said.

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet will be replaced by President-elect Sebastian Pinera on Thursday. It will the first time that a leftist president transfers power to a rightist president since the end of the military dictatorship in 1990.

"Water will be everywhere in the town within 15 days," Romero said. "But it is impossible to restore everything that has been destroyed."

In the meantime, Romero said that the local government is turning away offers of emergency housing because it wants to build with proper planning rather than institutionalizing the short-term camps.

"There are 6,500 homes destroyed and more than 30,000 people made homeless. Around 180,000 people live here and 106,000 people have been affected. It is a gigantic task," he said. "We want to be planning the city with better homes. We don't want tents everywhere." (PNA/Xinhua) dct/ALM/utb

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