Earthquake and tsunami in Chile: Effective regional cooperation and preparedness save lives

The Pacific Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System was activated on 1 April 2014 following an earthquake with a magnitude of 8.2 on the Richter scale originating in the shallow depths near the Chilean coast, 95 km Northwest of Iquique (Chile). Timely alert messages allowed for the evacuation of areas with high tsunami risk on the coast of Chile and Easter Island. The National Emergency Management Office of Chile (ONEMI) indicated that close to 1 million people were evacuated from coastal areas. According to the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, a 1.83 m tsunami hit Pisagua, Chile at 01:04 (UTC/GMT).

The earthquake that occurred at 23:46 (UTC/GMT) was the largest in a sequence of earthquakes in northern Chile that started on 1 January 2014. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC) initially issued a tsunami alert for Chile, Peru and Ecuador. The alert was later extended to Colombia and Panama, and tsunami watches were issued for Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico. The regional warning and watch was lifted at 04:43 (UTC/GMT). A reinforced regional sea level monitoring network enabled an effective and timely follow up of the generated tsunami.

Although tall buildings swayed in La Paz, Bolivia and in nearby Peru, preliminary reports suggest that damage is not extensive and the region escaped major casualties. However, there are localized power and telephone outages and some homes made of adobe were destroyed. There was some damage reported on roads linking northern towns between Iquique and Alto Auspicio, and landslides also have been reported to be blocking roads.

These reports indicate that disaster preparedness and mitigation strategies are bearing their fruits. Local populations are well prepared; regional cooperation is effective; warning and response mechanisms are efficient. The situation has improved greatly since the 27 February 2010 tsunami that impacted Chile. UNESCO has since done significant work on Education for tsunami preparedness 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.

Chile is also actively involved in the UNESCO International Platform for Reducing Earthquake Disaster (IPRED) which is a platform for collaborative research, training and education in the field of seismology and earthquake engineering in order to reduce disasters due to earthquakes, especially on buildings and housing. Chile’s earthquake-resistant standards provided a clear demonstration that risk can be contained even in highly seismic areas.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System (ICG/PTWS) was established in 1965 by UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission following the deadly tsunami that hit the coasts of Chile, U.S.A, and Japan in 1960. The purpose of the Group is to facilitate the speedy dissemination of alerts across the region and to support countries’ ability to respond to and mitigate tsunamis locally.

About 75% of the world’s deadly tsunamis have occurred in the Pacific Ocean and connected seas. Four struck the region over the past five years: Samoa, American Samoa (U.S.A.), and Tonga were hit in 2009, Chile in 2010, Japan in 2011, and the Solomon Islands in 2013.

UNESCO is engaged in the conceptual shift in thinking away from post-disaster reaction to pre-disaster action. Through its broad mandate and expertise, UNESCO is helping countries to reduce their vulnerability to natural hazards and build their capacity to cope with disasters through initiatives such as IPRED and the 4 regional Tsunami Warning Systems established in the Pacific, Caribbean, Indian Ocean and Northeast Atlantic regions.