March 1, 2010 / 12:54 AM / 10 years ago

Chile rushes troops, aid to quake-stricken towns

CONCEPCION, Chile (Reuters) - Looters raided more stores in this ravaged city on Monday as thousands of Chilean troops struggled to restore order after a huge earthquake and tsunamis killed more than 700 people.

A policeman answers a question in front of a house destroyed by a major earthquake in La Pezca March 1, 2010.REUTERS/Enrique Marcarian

Chile’s second-largest city of Concepcion resembled a battle zone in places as looting and robbery spread and military armoured personnel carriers patrolled the streets hours after looters stormed a supermarket, which later caught fire.

Looters also raided a fire station looking for water and gasoline as shortages of basic goods continued more than two days after a 8.8-magnitude quake devastated towns across central Chile and sent tsunamis barrelling into coastal communities.

“The looters are more organized,” said city mayor Jacqueline Van Rysselberghe, who asked the central government to reinforce Concepcion with more troops.

President Michelle Bachelet, calling the earthquake an “enormous catastrophe,” has dispatched 10,000 soldiers and imposed curfews to restore order and said her government was sending emergency food and medicine supplies.

A curfew went into effect overnight in the Maule region and in Concepcion, where looting broke out over the weekend.

Power cuts and mangled roads have slowed relief efforts and threatened to set back a recovery in one of Latin America’s most stable economies and the world’s biggest copper producer.

The death toll stands at 711 and is expected to rise, but both the human and economic cost could have been a lot worse given the size of the quake, one of the world’s biggest in the past century.

SIGNS OF LIFE

Chilean rescuers found signs of life on Monday in a collapsed apartment block in Concepcion, the nearest major city to the epicentre of the quake.

Workers heard knocking and other sounds beneath the ruins of the 14-storey building and were drilling into the rubble to try to reach the possible survivors. About 60 people were thought to have been killed when the block crumbled.

“We have good news, there are signs of people still alive inside,” said firefighter commander Juan Carlos Subercaseaux.

Many people were still missing in some communities in the worst-hit central region of Chile. A small plane bringing aid to Concepcion crashed on Monday, killing all six people on board, media reported.

Surging waves ruined houses and smashed cars in fishing villages on the country’s long Pacific coast. In the town of Constitucion alone, 350 people were reported to have died and a public gym was turned into a makeshift morgue.

Television images showed houses torn from their foundations, cars tossed around and the ground covered in shattered wood and wet mud.

“More than 75 percent of the village is destroyed,” David Merino, a community leader in the coastal town of Dichato, told Reuters. “After the earthquake, there were three waves. The first two were big and didn’t do much damage, but the last one almost wiped the village off the map.”

Dazed residents wandered around the picturesque tourist town on Sunday, trying to salvage possessions from ruined homes.

“We don’t have anything. We lived by fishing and lost everything. How are we going to live?” said 50-year-old fisherman Jose Castillo, holding his fishing knife and a bag as he scouring the ruins of the town for food and water.

Throughout the region, families struggled to get basic supplies and protect themselves.

“There are mothers without diapers or milk for their infants, and we don’t have any water or electricity,” said Paz Sanchez, 18, as she filled buckets with water from a tanker truck in the town of Talca. “We organized a group in our neighbourhood to ward off looters.”

ECONOMIC TREMORS

Chile’s bluechip stock index was down 1.54 percent, but the peso currency recovered from an early 1.5 percent decline and was trading slightly higher.

Copper prices jumped more than 5 percent to their highest in five weeks on concerns about possible supply disruptions from the world’s biggest exporter of the metal, although they later trimmed gains.

Most of Chile’s biggest copper mines affected by the quake slowly resumed operations, and the country’s ports were also running, but analysts said limited power supplies could curtail exports and further lift copper prices.

Two oil refineries remained closed, buoying the gas oil market.

Damage from the quake could cost up to $30 billion, equivalent to about 15 percent of Chile’s gross domestic product, said Eqecat, a firm that helps insurers model catastrophe risks.

Slideshow (30 Images)

Some economists predicted a deep impact on Chile’s economy after the quake damaged industrial and agricultural sectors in the worst-hit regions, but said the country’s solid fiscal position would help reconstruction efforts.

“Chile has ample resources abroad to help finance the cost of its rebuilding efforts,” Credit Suisse said. “Alternatively, it should be in a comfortable position to tap external and/or local debt markets.”

Additional reporting by Simon Gardner and Alonso Soto in Santiago; Writing by Stuart Grudgings, Helen Popper and Kevin Gray; Editing by Kieran Murray and Sandra Maler

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