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Chileans bitter about quake response

By Will Grant
BBC News, Concepcion

Some four-and-a-half days after one of the largest earthquakes in recent history struck the province of Concepcion, and several nearby fishing villages were swept away by the subsequent tsunami, aid is now beginning to reach the affected region.

Aid distribution is co-ordinated from the car park of a shopping mall in Concepcion
Aid distribution is co-ordinated from the car park of a shopping mall

For days, we have seen trucks loaded with drinking water, basic food and mattresses on their way to the city, yet there was scant evidence of any major aid distribution on the ground.

It has been clear from chatting to the people living in the most precarious conditions in Concepcion - those who are camping in the streets in tents for fear of re-entering their quake-damaged houses - that they feel abandoned by the authorities in the wake of the disaster.

However, the Chilean government says it has been working hard to make sure the assistance reaches the places it is most needed.

The Trebol shopping mall, on the outskirts of Concepcion, is normally thronged with people buying the weekly groceries or visiting the hardware stores on the complex.

But today its car park looks very different. Guarded at every entrance by armed soldiers, the mall is the main distribution point for the regional aid effort.

As helicopters whirr overhead, hundreds of troops, firemen and civilian volunteers are packing shopping bags with basic goods which are then shipped out to the worst-affected areas.

Tonnes of rice, pasta, flour, cooking oil and salt are stacked up alongside other necessary basics like tents, sleeping bags and nappies. The car park is buzzing as fork-lift trucks criss-cross the forecourt, delivering fresh loads to eager volunteers.

'Model of cooperation'

As his troops are loading up shopping bags with emergency supplies behind him, the ranking officer, Col Ramirez, has no time for the suggestion that the reaction has been too slow.

Government representative Paulo Gutierrez
The government has never had to deal with an event like this before
Paulo Gutierrez
National government representative

"This is exemplary," he says, motioning around him, "a model of the kind of co-operation between the military and civil society which we must repeat everywhere if we're to overcome this catastrophe."

Some 400 government trucks have been despatched to this aid centre, with the vast majority of them already in Concepcion. In total, 16,000 tonnes of emergency supplies have arrived and the international community has also responded in recent days with particular help coming from the countries of Latin America.

Paulo Gutierrez is a representative of the national government who is working on delivering aid to Dichato, one of the nearby coastal towns washed away by the tsunami.

"I can understand the feelings of the people who say we've reacted slowly" he admits. "But at the same time, this was a disaster of such magnitude that the government has also never had to deal with an event like this before."

Explaining that the materials he was packing up would be airlifted to the devastated fishing village by helicopter, Paulo is adamant that the local and national authorities are doing everything they can.

"The next stage will be getting these items to the people and we're going to work as hard as we can until that's done."

But others are less impressed with the emergency response so far. Just a short drive from the supermarket forecourt is one of the numerous tent villages sprouting up across this city.

'Where is our help'

Under the shelter of a motorway bridge, around two dozen families are surviving on what little clean water and food they can find, as they refuse to return to their homes until they have been made safe.

Volunteers
There is no shortage of volunteers eager to lend a hand

One of them, a young mother of two called Carina Venagas, is beginning to feel bitter about how quickly Chile offered help to Haiti following its massive earthquake earlier this year.

"With other countries, the President [Michelle Bachelet] and the state politicians told us that Chileans should be like brothers and extend the hand of help in their hour of need," she said.

"But where are our brothers? Where is our help? There are people drinking contaminated river water here, there are people who are ill. But there's been no doctors, no fresh water, nothing."

Meanwhile, the threat of further seismic activity continues to haunt the city. As the aid workers were taking a short break from loading the goods, there was a 5.9 aftershock which rocked Concepcion.

In the confusion of the ensuing minutes, a tsunami warning was reportedly issued creating panic in the streets and sending many residents running in fear.

The alarm was soon declared false, but those moments of mass hysteria revealed a city which is still very tense, and still anxious for help to arrive.




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