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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Chile Earthquake: U.S. and International Response

June S. Beittel
Analyst in Latin American Affairs

Rhoda Margesson
Specialist in International Humanitarian Policy

On February 27, 2010, an earthquake of magnitude 8.8 struck off the coast of central Chile. Centered 70 miles northeast of Chile's second-largest city, Concepción, at a depth of 22 miles, the earthquake was the second largest ever recorded in Chile and the fifth largest recorded worldwide since 1900. Over 100 aftershocks of magnitude 5.0 or greater were recorded following the initial earthquake. The earthquake and subsequent tsunami, which struck Chile's coast roughly 20 minutes after the earthquake and moved 2,000 feet onto shore in some places, devastated parts of the country. Although there are reports of varying casualty numbers, according to Chile's Ministry of the Interior, the official death toll is 507 (497 bodies have been identified; 10 remain unidentified). The numbers of missing persons are not yet known. Approximately 200,000 homes have been badly damaged or destroyed. Estimates suggest as many as 2 million people may have been affected by the earthquake, an unknown number of whom were injured or displaced. 

The Chilean government, through the Chilean National Emergency Office, is leading the relief operation and coordinating assistance. Despite offers of assistance, thus far the international humanitarian relief operation has been limited pending further requests for assistance from the government. In addition, there are more than 16,000 Chilean military personnel providing humanitarian relief and maintaining public order. At least two elements of the Chilean government's initial response have been criticized in Chile. The first is that the coastal and island communities did not receive timely warning about the tsunami waves that caused so many of the reported casualties. The second Chilean government response that has been widely questioned was the speed with which the Chilean military was deployed to quell looting and violence in the disaster zone. While critics point to weaknesses in the initial response, later assessments by disaster managers gave the Chilean government's response higher marks. Many credited the government of President Michelle Bachelet with success given the scope of the disaster and some labeled the government's response a model. The Chilean government's response to the earthquake has been complicated by the fact that President Bachelet left office on March 11, 2010, and has been succeeded by Sebastián Piñera, the leader of a center-right coalition that won the country's recent presidential election. President Bachelet held meetings with President-elect Piñera in order to ease the transition. 

On February 27, 2010, President Barack Obama announced that the U.S. government would assist with earthquake rescue and recovery efforts, pending a request from the Chilean Government. On February 28, 2010, U.S. Ambassador to Chile Paul E. Simons issued a disaster declaration, and through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA), authorized $50,000 for the initial implementation of an emergency response program. OFDA deployed a 16-member USAID Disaster Assistance Response Team. As of March 10, 2010, USAID/OFDA reports that it has provided $10.7 million for emergency response activities in Chile. The U.S. Department of Defense is also providing limited assistance. Policy issues of potential interest include levels of U.S. assistance to Chile, burdensharing and donor fatigue, tsunamis and early warning systems, and managing risk through building codes. Related legislation includes S.Res. 431, H.Res. 1144, H.R. 4783.

For more background on Chile, see CRS Report R40126,
Chile: Political and Economic Conditions and U.S. Relations.


Date of Report: March 11, 2010
Number of Pages: 30
Order Number: R41112
Price: $29.95

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