Earthquake and Tsunami in Chile: massive evacuation and building codes help to reduce loss of life

Chile, located in the Pacific “Ring of Fire”, is one of the most seismically exposed countries with some of the largest seismic events on the planet. On 16 September 2015, an earthquake with a magnitude of 8.3 Mw occurred in the shallow depths near the coast of central Chile at 22:54 GMT, triggering the activation of the Pacific Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System. Timely alert messages allowed for the evacuation of nearly 1 million people in areas with high tsunami risk on the coast of Chile and Easter Island, according to the National Emergency Management Office of Chile (ONEMI). A tsunami spread across the Pacific, with waves up to 4.75 m hitting Coquimbo, Chile at 00:25 GMT. National authorities confirmed reports of 8 victims, mainly due to buildings collapsing during the earthquake, and coastal fringes of several cities were flooded. However, preliminary reports indicate that disaster preparedness and risk reduction strategies are bearing their fruits, as major casualties and damages were prevented.

While the occurrence of natural hazards are largely out of our control, disasters can be prevented or mitigated through assessments, sound management (including prevention, alert and response mechanisms) and education.

The Chilean authorities modified their structural codes to secure safety of the buildings after the earthquake and tsunami of 2010 (with a magnitude of 8.8 Mw) that killed more than 500 people. Since then, although large seismic events have taken place (2014 earthquakes of 8.2 Mw and today’s event of 8.3 Mw) most of the damage occured in structures not built or adapted to current code guidelines. Furthermore, local populations are well prepared; regional cooperation is effective; warning and response mechanisms are efficient. This requires constant efforts to develop, test and improve systems and to raise awareness.

The Universidad Catolica de Chile is actively involved in UNESCO’s International Platform for Reducing Earthquake Disaster (IPRED) a platform for collaborative research, training and education in the field of seismology and earthquake engineering that focuses on developing technical guidelines (such as “guidelines for earthquake resistant non-engineering construction”), providing policy advice via technical recommendations from post-earthquake field investigation (Van, Turkey in 2012; Bohol, Philippines in 2014) as well as raising awareness on seismic safety of buildings in order to reduce disasters due to earthquakes.

Chile’s National Tsunami Warning Center is under the responsibility of the Chilean Navy Hydrographic and Oceanographic Service (SHOA) and part of the Pacific Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System (ICG/PTWS), established in 1965 by UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission to facilitate the speedy dissemination of alerts across the region and to support countries’ ability to respond to and mitigate tsunamis locally. UNESCO has done significant work on education for tsunami preparedness globally through its offices in Santiago, Lima and Quito, together with its Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC-UNESCO), focusing on the countries of South America’s Pacific Coast and is currently working on capacitating the region (Chile, Ecuador, Peru and Uruguay) in issues of multihazard risk mapping and assessment.

As of 1 October 2014, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC) is delivering enhanced tsunami information products to improve countries’ response capability and provide advanced notice of potential local tsunamis while reducing the numbers of areas warned (and potentially evacuated) unnecessarily.

The tsunami alert has been lifted in Chile, but national tsunami warning centers caution that sea level changes and strong currents may yet occur along some coasts; these could be a hazard to swimmers and boaters as well as to persons near the shore in some areas of South West Pacific region and Hawaii.

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