In the Nick of Time
By Juan Salazar and Benedicto García*
October 19, 2011, Santiago, Chile—When the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) offered a first training in disaster response to Methodist Social Ministry of Chile, in 2009, it gave birth to the Chilean church’s own disaster response organization—and just in the nick of time.
Held over the course of four days that October, in the town of San Alfonso, the training came in response to a request by the Methodist Church of Chile (IMECH) for preparation that would allow it to intervene technically and professionally when adverse events strike.
Just four months later, this training had its practical application when, on February 27, 2010, at 3:34 a.m., there was an 8.8-magnitude earthquake with a break length of about 310 miles. The massive earthquake intensely affected the central and south-central zones of Chile.
The earthquake also generated a huge tsunami that swept away coastal villages. Eighty percent of the total population of Chile was affected—about 13 million people. The level of destruction and damage was incalculable. With the Chilean winter approaching, there was even more anxiety.
Into this scene, the recently formed Methodist Team for Humanitarian Assistance (EMAH) emerged for the first time.
We took charge of distributing food, blankets, and health kits, actions that continued through April 2011 and that reached 4,380 earthquake survivors. The early and opportune training by UMCOR allowed us to face this intervention with technical knowledge, and to complete it successfully.
Our main objective was to contribute to meeting the basic needs of food, shelter, sanitation, and psychosocial support of a determined number of families affected by the earthquake and tsunami. The testimonies of some of those affected bear witness to what we accomplished.
“My family and I went out the day after the earthquake, and I was amazed to see so much looting. It frightened me. My daughter asked me if we would have food, and I told her we have to trust that God will not abandon us,” said one survivor.
“I shared what little I had with my neighbors,” she went on. “One day, I felt God’s assurance that I would receive a great blessing. Now I understand that you [EMAH] were that blessing. You brought us these blankets, and then you came with food for my family.
“Really, I am so happy,” she said, her voice breaking. She paused for a moment, and said, “May God bless all that you’re doing!”
Another woman, from a neighborhood in Concepción, which was near to the epicenter of the earthquake, was grateful for the timely distribution of blankets for her and her children.
“When I received the blankets, I put them right on our beds and we went to sleep. We slept so toasty warm that we didn’t even realize when morning arrived,” she said. “Thank you so much. I really needed something I could use to protect my children.”
Response in Linares
Narcisa Nova Gatica is from the small town of Linares. “I work in a car wash in the center of town,” she said. “I’m the head of my household and have four children to support. They range in age from 15 to 12 to 11, and the smallest is just shy of 2 years old. My mother lives with us, and I support her as well.
“For us, the earthquake was terrible. My house is made of wood and it shook a lot; like it was on the water. That night was really long. We didn’t know what would happen next. The kitchen was destroyed. The dishes were all gone; a beam fell down and crushed the refrigerator.
“My daughter has bronchitis now, and I have no way to light the stove and make steam to ease her breathing. The slate roof broke into pieces. I had no help—until you arrived. I never imagined anyone would help me. But your help seemed to come from heaven. Thank you so much for everything.”
Three years after our encounter with UMCOR began, EMAH can give willing testimony of our mutual commitment to walk together, gathering lessons for advancing humanitarian work in Chile.
There have been two more training sessions since that first one back in October 2009. And we are looking ahead together to better prepare EMAH and the people of Chile to face catastrophic events.
Our country is constantly subject to adverse events, with catastrophic effects on the people and our environment. The list of disasters in Chile over the past 25 years is long and varied: earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, droughts, and volcanic eruptions, to name some.
But the most worrisome event is the prompt loss of memory of these events and, so, the lack of preventive measures. People at all levels of society soon forget the catastrophic event and its consequences, and begin rebuilding in the same places that were razed and repeating the same errors.
As EMAH, we want to break this cycle. We want to build up professional humanitarian aid teams, create spaces for training volunteers, and provide the basic tools needed for an immediate response to crises and for long-term accompaniment.
We look to UMCOR for continued support in this effort. And we are confident we will build, develop, and strengthen our Methodist Team for Humanitarian Assistance and its capacity to be a sign of hope among the people of Chile.
Learn more about UMCOR’s International Disaster Response work today by visiting www.10-Fold.org. Your gift to International Disaster Response, UMCOR Advance #982450, supports UMCOR’s efforts to help partners such as EMAH prepare for catastrophic events.
*Juan Salazar is EMAH national coordinator, and Benedicto García represents EMAH in the Concepción District, which was hardest hit by last year’s earthquake.