Aftermath of the Chilean earthquake

After the earthquake: Chile's challenges

E&T considers some of the infrastructure deficiencies that the Chilean earthquake brought to light.

When, in the early hours of 27 February the first reports emerged that a very powerful earthquake had struck Chile, seismologists, geologists, earth scientists and structural engineers all breathed a cautious sigh of relief. No matter how violent this latest tectonic movement might have been, Chile - they knew - wasn't Haiti.

While both countries are well aware that they sit on top of major active fault lines, only the South American nation has had the opportunity - and the resources - to design and build infrastructure that is prepared to cope with the inevitable earthquakes. Or is it?

As the dust started to settle, it became evident that the widely held belief that Chile enjoyed a high level of seismic preparedness only held true for certain types of infrastructure.

Although it is still too early to make an accurate assessment, civil construction work in general seems to have withstood the fury of nature as reasonably as can be expected for an event that displaced the axis of the Earth by 8cm.

Considering the earthquake was 500 times more powerful than Haiti's, simply comparing the number of casualties (over 200,000 in the Caribbean nation; less than a hundredth of that tragic figure in Chile) tells a story of its own. Thousands of buildings in Chile have been engineered to save lives when the Earth shakes. And that's exactly what they did on 27 February.

The same applies to other categories of Chile's civil infrastructure. Take bridges: out of 4,400 of such structures in the south of the country (half of them in the Maule and Biobío regions, the worst affected), only 40 were damaged. Of these, 20 will require minor to medium repair work. The rest will be demolished and rebuilt, according to Sergio Bitar, until recently public works minister under former President Michelle Bachelet, whose term of office ended on 11 March.

Bad calls

Buenos Aires, the capital of neighbouring Argentina where I'm based, is now a full 3.9cm farther to the west than it was on 26 February, scientific GPS measurements have shown.

Not that I noticed any sense of being dragged onto the Nazca plate while this was happening. What I did notice three days afterwards, while I was in the Buenos Aires offices of Tesacom, is that something wasn't right. I was interviewing the chief executive officer of the company, South America's largest satellite communication service provider, about the firm's involvement in a pioneering electronic voting system deployed by Brazil (see next issue).

But the CEO wasn't really with me. His mobile phone kept ringing, calls and text messages manically flowing in and out of the busy handset. 'I must apologise,' he said. 'I would never be so rude under normal circumstances'.

The abnormal circumstances had to do with what was happening on the other side of the Andes. Terrestrial telecommunication networks were severely affected, as is usually the case following an earthquake of this magnitude.

'We are being inundated with requests for satellite phones and terminals for satellite broadband data access from the Chilean army, NGOs and a large number of private companies that have been left without communications,' Tesacom's CEO Jose Sanchez Elia told me.

The company has a branch in Santiago, Chile's capital. The problem was that demand was far outstripping supply. 'We always keep a stock of equipment in Chile and Argentina, but this has exceeded all our calculations,' added Silvina Graziadio, the service provider's regional sub-director of marketing and communications.

Tesacom did have 1,200 satcom units ready to be shipped into Chile from the US, while other cargoes were hastily being assembled in Brazil and Peru. But Santiago's international airport remained closed until further notice, so the company was considering alternative delivery arrangements.

By the time I phoned Tesacom a week later to follow up the story, the airport was fully operational and the company had a list of over 20 private firms, as well as the Chilean military, government bodies and international organisations, to which it had been providing satellite communications.

Disruption inevitable

That terrestrial telecom infrastructure can suffer after a devastating earthquake and tsunami is as understandable as it is unavoidable. Fibre, copper and coaxial communications are based on cables that - whether underground or fixed to poles - get disconnected when disaster strikes.

Mobile phone networks aren't immune, either. Not only do cellular base stations use cables for backhauling traffic, too, but their antennas rely on finely tuned alignments that are easily disrupted by a powerful earthquake. Such reduced network capacity is usually accompanied by increased traffic loads as people are eager to contact family and friends, which compounds the problem.

What is unacceptable in a country that aspires to adequate seismic preparedness is not having portable satellite communication equipment on standby as part of an emergency contingency plan.

Pablo Bello, the outgoing sub-secretary of telecommunications, admitted that even emergency services and the armed forces had faced difficulties in coordinating early relief efforts given their exclusive reliance on terrestrial communication infrastructure. 'This cannot happen again,' he urged days before Jorge Atton, the man chosen by President Piñera to succeed him, took over.

Bello also recommended the development and implementation of renewable energy sources for back-up power. In the aftermath of the earthquake, a great many of the problems that both fixed and wireless networks experienced had little to do with severed cables or unaligned antennas and more to do with the lack of electricity.

Many lives are thought to have been lost as a consequence of a tsunami warning system that, when it really came to it, failed. Incoming President Sebastian Piñera has already committed to developing a new one as part of an infrastructure reconstruction programme that will soon be announced and which is estimated to require between $20bn and $30bn.

Spend that money wisely, Mr Piñera, and you will have taken a major step to dispelling the now growing fears that, when it comes to seismic preparedness, Chile is not Japan.

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