Saturday, August 18, 2007

Earthquake in Peru

It's always a worrying sign when the death toll rises rapidly. The first news I heard about the 7.9 Richter scale Peruvian earthquake was several hours after the event, and already early news reports of deaths in single figures had blown out to 330 in later reports. It now looks as though the death toll will be around 500, while an estimated 17,000 people have been left homeless.

Worst hit were the towns of Ica,Pisco, Chinca and CaƱete, three--five hours to the southeast of Lima. The majority of casualties appear to have occurred when buildings simply collapsed on top of their occupants.

It's worth checking out this video clip (click to play, audio in spanish) to get some idea of just how badly Pisco has been damaged. The piles of rubble make it look like a particularly war-torn part of Chechnya. Reports say that between 60 to 80 percent of the city has been destroyed. The Guardian has a good summary of events, and some geological background to the quake.

Injured people are being ferried by 'air bridge' to Lima hospitals, and aid and supplies are coming in from the government, Red Cross and private companies. International agencies have already given or offered $40 million of aid. Chile was one of the first countries to assist, sending a Hercules transport plane, while Spanish and Bolivian rescuers helped to look for survivors, and Colombia was reported to have discpatched a ship with supplies to the port of Pisco. Peruvian president Alan Garcia, never one to miss an opportunity to make a wider political point, said that "this gesture shows the brotherly relations of Peru and Chile despite differences over the maritime border".

Sadly, there have also been numerous reports of criminal gangs taking advantage of the darkness in Chincha and Ica to loot and attack houses. It is thought that prisoners that escaped from the Tambo de Mora penal facility during the earthquake may be responsible for some of the criminal activity. Frightened citizens rang TV and radio stations describing armed gangs roaming the streets. President Garcia has announced that he will send an additional 600 police to the affected areas.

Supplies including water, food, medicine and tents have been dribbling in along damaged highways. TV cameras -- always efficiently deployed -- showed people in Pisco living a post-apocalypse reality, huddled on dark streets in blankets and improvising communal meals. But they were still better off than those in isolated rural areas, who were reported to still be with out assistance, 48 hours after the quake.

As terrible a tragedy as this, perhaps the real story is that a complete catastrophe was only just avoided. In Lima, buildings wobbled and swayed, leaving residents shaken but largely unharmed. The city has close to 10 million people, many in dense concentrations of poorly-constructed brick, plaster and concrete. Had the quake been centred a bit further to the north, the results woud have been scarcely imaginable.

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