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Notes on the Earthquake in Chile

(one week after the 27 February 2010 earthquake)

The earthquake in Chile and consecutive three tidal waves of between 10 to 20m height (accounts vary), affected an area approximately 800 km long. In this long and narrow country defined by extreme climate and geographic conditions (desert on the north and glaziers on its south), the area affected by the earthquake was by far the most populated. The extension is somewhere similar to the linear distance between Paris and Venice, or locally, between Melbourne and Sydney. However, in the case of Chile we need to consider that apart form the capital Santiago (with an approx. population of 5M) and the regional capital of Concepción (approx. 300,000), this extension includes many important cities varying in population sizes from small rural and coastal tourist towns, to medium size cities. Cities, such as the Port of Valparaiso and Talcahuano have approximately one quarter of a million people. The extent of the earthquake and tsunami that followed has no precedent in the recorded history of Chile. So far the death toll is at 452 people, but Chilean President Michelle Bachelet warned that this may continue to rise.

Solidarity has been a major feature in this catastrophe. A “Telethon” started 6 days after the earthquake and managed to double the initial target, reaching AU$65 million in financial donations. Numerous accounts of solidarity are starting to be told. For example, victims, who after the earthquake found refuge from the 3 consecutive tidal waves on the mountains around Constitución (one of the cities worst hit by this catastrophe), were given cooked meals by people from neighbouring towns who were, under the circumstances, better off. Looting was unforgivable, but also grossly exaggerated by the local media. Still, the country was shocked by the images of vandalism that according to some are evidence of something going wrong with ‘the pillars of society’, situation that some believe presents yet another challenge.

All theatres have reopened and are offering their productions for free. The public is invited to attend theatres for a contribution, of any amount, to the reconstruction funds (large gatherings were forbidden for a few days after the earthquake because of aftershocks).

Secondary and tertiary students have enrolled as volunteers and are now assisting in the worst affected areas. In regards to our professions, the Chilean Ministry of Urbanism and Housing (MINVU), together with the Chilean Institute of Architects are also organising teams of professional volunteers. National and international architects are invited to register--although at this stage the focus is on national capacity.

Donations gathered from every city in Chile have arrived and continue to arrive to those in need—those in shelters (gymnasiums and schools) are receiving breakfast, lunch and dinner. A government lead employment program for recent graduates (offering 1 year paid jobs in remotes areas of Chile), is from now on focusing on the areas worst affected. Doctors, psychologists, architects and many others are working non stop to support traumatised communities. Immense examples of effort, sacrifice and solidarity give everyone the strength to get the country back on its feet.

As always, the most affected are the poor.

Aftershocks are, by all measures, new earthquakes--these happen everyday some reaching 6.4 in the Richter scale.

Extensive damage to key road infrastructure:

Carretera Sur. Photo: Oscar Acuña Carretera Sur. Photo: Oscar Acuña

Amidst a relative well organised emergency response, Santiago managed to be back on its feet in 48 hours, with electricity, communication and public transport (including the underground) restored. Although services in the country are 90-99% restored, unfortunately, some smaller towns and communities have experienced perceived or real abandonment. Yet, the coordination of efforts between the authorities, media, civil organisations and industry is nothing less than impressive. At organisational levels, these is the result of sophisticated strategies lead by the government and involving public and private enterprises, local authorities and the educational system.
"On a per-capita basis, Chile has more world-renowned seismologists and earthquake engineers than anywhere else," said Brian E Tucker.[1]

President Michelle Bachelet decreed 3 days of national mourning. She also gave an estimated at between $15bn to $30bn for the financial cost of this tragedy and confirmed that the reconstruction process will take 3 to 4 years.

Entire coastal towns have been erased. Added to the personal trauma, the collapse of sections of carefully preserved historic districts, that characterise most cities and towns in Chile, has robbed Chile of much of its cultural/architectural heritage. In Santiago, the popular and historical “Barrio Yungay” was one of the most affected. My friend from St Fernando (small city in a mainly agricultural province), lamented the damage of the city’s heritage, that she said included buildings that had undergone recent and costly restorations. Professor of architecture Sebastian Gray expressed:

Towns that had managed to dodge the forces of nature for hundreds of years were toppled or washed away.
Beautiful old buildings of adobe and simple masonry are now gone forever.
Saddened as I am by the loss of life and landmarks, I am scandalized by the few modern structures that crumbled, those spectacular exceptions you keep seeing on the TV news. The economic bonanza and development frenzy of the last decades have clearly allowed a degree of relaxation of the proud building standards of this country. (…)
For Chilean architects, this is the challenge of a lifetime: to restore beauty, to preserve history, to build sensibly.[2]

The cases below are by no means the worst, but shows examples of the loss of in historic districts among many rural and traditional towns:

Provincial hospital of Chimbarongo, destroyed and now evacuated. (Photo: author, 2007)

A modest provincial church of San Jose de Chimbarongo, in the town of the same name, built in 1660. (Photo: author, 2007)
Church of San Jose de Chimbarongo now. (Photo: Marisol Acevedo, 2010). Church of San Jose de Chimbarongo now. (Photo: Marisol Acevedo, 2010).

According to authorities, most high-rise buildings withstood the earthquake very well and this is due to strict seismic regulations. However, a few recently finished residential buildings were severely damaged. Among these, a 15 storey building (in Concepción) collapsed on its back. Expert rescue teams (recently returning from Haiti), worked for 7 days in an attempt to rescue people believed trapped inside this building.

Seismic building systems are designed to flex with the telluric movement instead of resisting it. This assists to preserve their structural integrity. However, non-structural infill bears the consequences of the flexing and may crack or collapse. It is the result of these building strategies which offer such a visually devastating panorama in some urban areas, but it has on the other hand prevented more deaths. Housing Minister, Patricia Poblete, reminded those affected that they are entitled to protection under the “Law of quality” (Ley de Calidad).[3] New buildings collapsing have by far been “spectacular exceptions”.[4] Yet, in a country fully aware of its seismic nature, these “exceptions” stand as evidence of a recent lax approach to societal priorities. Things may start to change and three days after the earthquake authorities were considering extending seismic regulations to include not only structural elements, but also finishes, lighting and non-structural walls.[5]
Structural damage to supporting wall under water tank. (Photo: Fernando De Gregorio, 2010). Detail of damage to supporting wall under water tank. (Photo: Fernando De Gregorio, 2010)

In some regions up to 50% of the schools suffered some degree of damage. A number of hospitals are damaged beyond repair.

Sadly, Chile was/is celebrating its bicentenary of independence this year.[6] An important aspect of this celebration were/are many large and ambitious infrastructural and architectural projects planned to be inaugurated on 18 Sept 2010.

The times ahead present some extraordinary opportunities for the professions of the built environment. This cannot only be measured in regard to the improvement and rigour of norms, design and technical matters. It is also an opportunity to sensibly approach the future of damaged heritage buildings, to improve and develop new skills to salvage what is left of the rich Chilean urban and architectural heritage.

Author: Beatriz C. Maturana.
Thanks also to my colleagues and friends in Chile Gabriela Sabadini Dorich, Fernando De Gregorio C. and Marisol Acevedo V. for their updates and current photographs.

Note: some information included in this article was amended and updated on 9.03.10. More photographs will be added as they become available.

1. Frank Bajak. “Chile was ready for quake, Haiti wasn’t”. Associated Press (AP), 27 February 2010.
2. Sebastian Gray. “Santiago Stands Firm”. New York Times, 2 March 2010.
3. “Ministra de Vivienda llama a propietarios a acogerse a Ley de Calidad por daños” (Minister call home owner to find protection for damages to their properties in the ‘Law of Quality’). El Mercurio, 3 March 2010.
4. Sebastian Gray. “Santiago Stands Firm”.
5. Lorena Guzmán H. “En Chile las terminaciones no están reguladas” (“In Chile finishes are not regulated”). El Mercurio, 3 March 2010.{DD167C8F-0AC4-4FD6-9716-ABB5E0124411}
6. See “Works, projects and national bicentenary programs”,

Other links of interest:

- “Why did fewer die in Chile's earthquake than in Haiti's?”. BBC News, 1 March 2010.
- “Maps of the Chile Earthquake”. New York Times, 1 March 2010.
- Three days after the earthquake, the authorities announced that, under the A roof for Chile initiative, 30,000 emergency houses or ‘mediaguas’ will be built. Three hundred volunteers will start working immediately. “Un Techo para Chile construirá 30 mil viviendas para damnificados por terremoto”. El Mercurio. 3 March 2010.
- "Terremoto de Chile de 2010." Wikipedia, La enciclopedia libre. 6 mar 2010,

Chilean Consulate in Melbourne has opened a bank account for direct deposits:
Name: Chile's Earthquake Help
Bank: Westpac Banking Corporation
BSB: 033 165
Account: 175301


oriencech said...

Lamentablemente hay arquitectos que opinan que se debe demoler la Parroquia San Jose de Chimbarongo, cuyas imagenes se muestran en este articulo.
Puedo decirles que la Iglesia está construida con técnica de cal y canto, ladrillo pegados con una mezcla de clara de huevo, arena y cal. En el interior se observan dos líneas de pilares que separan la nave central y los espacios laterales y la bóveda (techo) con revestimiento de madera.

Predomina estilo neo-románico: arco de medio puto, columnas anchas, pórtico de entrada con rosetón.

La planta de la Iglesia conforman la figura de una cruz vista desde el aire.

En el terremoto del año 1906 perdió su campanario.
¿Es posible que otros arquitectos avalen la reconstruccion en lugar de la demolicion?

oriencech said...

Es posible ver mas imagenes de la parroquia San Jose de Chimbarongo, antes del terremoto en

Beatriz Maturana said...

Creo que hay algunos puntos importantes a considerar. Lo primero es por supuesto la riqueza de la ciudad, que no sólo se mide en ingresos, si no en su capacidad de compartir su historia. Por supuesto que también se puede agregar la capacidad turística futura, en la que su valor histórico se puede traducir en beneficios económicos y de desarrollo.

Hoy en día hay muchas formas de salvar edificios de valor histórico. En Australia hay casos (como en el ejemplo del link) donde se conservan edificios manteniendo las paredes de fuera (como una cáscara), y sujetándolas a una estructura nueva que va adentro (el nuevo edificio). De esta forma se mantiene por lo menos el carácter e integridad urbana. Lo que quiero decir es que se llegan incluso a extremos tratando de mantener edificios que son mucho más recientes que, por ejemplo, la parroquia de Chimbarongo.
Fíjate en este:

Beatriz Maturana said...

... también es importante agregar que Australia no es un país sísmico como lo es Chile, por lo que la restauración es mucho menos complicada y menos costosa.

Daniel González Seguel said...

Por favor, lo que se pueda recuperar que se haga!. La reconstrucción también es un rescate y no solo una re edificación total. Hay que tomarlo como un desafío para todos los arquitectos que quieran trabajar en esto!. Trabajemos en rescatar y reconstruir a Chile.

Saludos cordiales.


Unknown said...

Hola amigos chilenos. Siento mucho las perdidas de vidas de todo lo demas. Chile siempre ha sido sometido a la furia de los terremotos. Es un pais muy bello con gente muy bella en todo sentido. Soy de Ecuador y estoy con ustedes hermanos chilenos.
En cuanto a la reconstruccion de Chile pues pueden hacer como hacen en Europa, todo igual como era antes, parece que nunca hubo ni primera ni segunda guerra mundial pues construyen tal como fue. A trabajar architectos! Adelante Chile!

Anonymous said...

Muchas gracias Rosa

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