March 19, 2013—Surprising as it might seem, the United Methodist Committee on Relief, UMCOR, has been helping the people of Chile cope with the effects of their devastating 2010 earthquake since well before it even happened.
The 8.8 magnitude earthquake hit that South American country on February 27 of that year, but already back in 2009, UMCOR had been organizing training sessions for members of the Chilean Methodist Church (IMECH, in its Spanish acronym) and preparing communities to respond to natural disasters.
Amid aid efforts in the wake of the earthquake, Juan Salazar, national coordinator of the church’s humanitarian aid foundation, EMAH, said that the UMCOR training had been “fundamental” to the church’s effective efforts to support the devastated communities.
It provided, said Salazar, “the basic tools we needed in order to understand how to respond to emergencies like this earthquake: how to evaluate damages and how to prepare and distribute calorie-appropriate and nutritious food aid.”
Over time, as the recovery work shifted and became more long-term in its mission, UMCOR found itself—in partnership with the international ACT alliance as well as EMAH on the ground—focusing on those vulnerable sections of the population whose needs were not fully met by the government’s outreach efforts.
Few places exemplified those needs more than the Bíobío Region, where the quake’s epicenter produced much of the most severe damage, and which became known as the disaster’s “Ground Zero.”
In anticipation of the third anniversary of the emergency, Salazar and colleague Andrea Martínez, who coordinates the work in Bíobío, surveyed the sites of camps that had offered emergency accommodation to many thousands of residents made homeless after the quake. They report that many of the temporary homes are now empty, since their occupants have moved on to permanent housing.
In their joint report, Martinez and Salazar say that on returning to the camps, they were filled with “a sensation that cannot be explained in words. It can be comprehended only by those who had the chance to be there and witness Jesus acting among a people in need.”
But they also report, “Unfortunately, we cannot say that all of the work of reconstruction is done. There is still so much to do!”
According to offical estimates, more than 50,000 families are still awaiting permanent homes, and the construction of a desperately needed 16,000 units has not yet begun. Families will have to spend yet another winter in “temporary” camps.
Martinez and Salazar concluded that their three years’ tough experience in and after 2010’s disaster provides an important lesson. They stress the need for local capacity to be built up in disaster risk reduction, a process that began with UMCOR’s readiness training back before the 2010 quake took place.
“We know that our country is exposed to the possibility of such events, and we can’t deny that we could be facing another one before long,” they indicate.