UMCOR / News Room / News & Features / Archives 2010 / 0514 - Earthquake Shines a Light on Chile

Earthquake Shines a Light on Chile

By Linda Unger*

May 17, 2010— The February 27 earthquake in Chile brought to light otherwise “hidden realities” in this South American country, said Juan Salazar, disaster response coordinator of the Methodist Church of Chile (IMECH).

 “Chile is seen as a progressive country, one that is reaching a new level, joining bigger, wealthier countries. But it’s not like that for most,” Salazar said during a visit to New York City to meet with United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) executives.

Most of the hundreds of thousands of people who were affected by the earthquake “lost everything,” said the coordinator of the Methodist Humanitarian Aid Team (EMAH).

“There is a great deal of fear, and trauma is latent. For most, the situation is the same or worse than it was immediately following the earthquake,” Salazar added.

According to the Chilean government, more than 500 people died in the disaster that also caused an estimated $30 billion in damages. Two million homes were damaged and 500,000 were utterly destroyed.

A Deceptive Earthquake

Five weeks before Salazar’s visit to New York, he and IMECH Bishop Mario Martínez Tapia hosted General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM) personnel in a tour of disaster areas during Holy Week.

UMCOR executive Rev. Tom Hazelwood and Dakin Cook of Mission Relationships visited 14 affected towns or cities in four days, a 2,000-kilometer (1,243-mile) roundtrip from the capital, Santiago, to Temuco in the south.

Bishop Martínez, who by that time had made four such tours, informed his visitors that for the Chilean people, the earthquake was “un terremoto hipócrita,” a deceptive earthquake.

“On our first visit, the houses seemed to be alright. There was no rubble in the street,” Martínez said. “But by the next visit, all the rubble that had been inside the homes was moved outside. The houses don’t look damaged, but they are in fact uninhabitable.”

In addition, he said, most of the people whose homes were affected have no insurance to cover repairs or the costs of demolition and reconstruction.

The Poorest Suffer the Most

“In Concepción [Chile’s second largest city] and other places you can tell that the poorest of the poor, as in any disaster, are the ones who suffer,” UMCOR’s Rev. Hazelwood said.  “Houses of adobe did not withstand the quake.”

In Talcahuano, a port town 324 miles south of Santiago, Hazelwood and Cook saw fishing boats still washed up onto the street and shipping containers lying lazily in the bay, indications of lost livelihood.

Dichato, a nearby coastal village, was almost completely swallowed up by the tsunamis that followed the earthquake. Eighty percent of the village was destroyed, and human casualties remain inconclusive, as the beach town had an influx of vacationers at the end of the Chilean summer when the earthquake and tidal waves struck.

In Santiago, as in the other towns the GBGM team visited, Chileans continued to sleep outdoors or stay with relatives whose homes were unscathed. Victor Díaz acted as spokesperson for a group of 12 families that erected a tent village they call Campamento Portales in a small park along a highway in the capital.

“We all lived around here and we all have friends who disappeared or died in the earthquake,” he said. “The building where I lived, the walls fell in.” Díaz said he was a plumber and had lost all his tools and remains unemployed.

“We’re grateful for the food and other things people have given us, though it feels a little strange. We’re not used to people just giving us stuff,” Díaz said. “We share everything.”

Places of worship in Santiago and in all the towns Hazelwood and Cook visited also were affected by the earthquake, making pastoral attention a challenge at a time when the faithful need it the most.

Sixteen Methodist Churches, four parsonages, and 11 other IMECH buildings experienced moderate to severe damage. Those buildings with structural damage will have to be demolished and rebuilt. The Methodist Church of Chile has a total of about 9,000 members, most of them of modest means.

Moving Forward

In his conversation with UMCOR executives in New York, EMAH’s Juan Salazar expressed gratitude for the disaster response training UMCOR had provided just four months before the earthquake and shared plans for the coming relief and recovery phases in Chile.

Salazar also took the opportunity to meet with Rev. Edgar Avitia, GBGM executive for Mission Relationships in Latin America and the Caribbean, and with other EMAH and IMECH partners in Chile’s relief and recovery.

The Methodist Humanitarian Aid Team will concentrate on helping the most vulnerable Chileans to repair and rebuild their homes, offer emotional support for those dealing with trauma, and seek additional disaster response training for EMAH members.

“The Gospel teaches us to respond to the marginalized and the forgotten,” Salazar said. He expressed confidence that UMCOR’s partnership with EMAH will do just that.

Your generosity will support the rebuilding of communities in Chile, including the reconstruction of homes and places of worship. Help the Chilean people rebuild their lives with your gift to Chile Emergency, UMCOR Advance #3021178. Online Giving

*Linda Unger is UMCOR staff writer.