Of Tsunamis, Courts, and the Consequences of Human Disasters in the Face of Natural Events

This story is a tragic yet fascinating one. Effectively, Chilean officials who had said the 8.8 earthquake of 2010 was nothing to worry about are facing trial for what amounts to criminal negligence:

On the morning of February 27, 2010, Interior Minister Patricio Rosende dismissed on national television “absolutely, the possibility of a tsunami,” asking the nation to remain calm only one hour after an 8.8-magnitude earthquake struck south-central Chile. Meanwhile, a series of waves were heading toward Chile’s shore. Eventually, the all-powerful water would engulf a 375 mile (600 kilometer) stretch of coastline from Concepción to Valparaiso and kill 525 Chileans.

Rosende’s statement, along with other actions (or inaction), would lead him and seven other government officials to stand trial some two years after the tragedy. Families of the victims are demanding justice. They seek criminal liability in what has surfaced as an undoubtedly bungled emergency response.

While what appears to be no small degree of incompetence and/or arrogance is certainly at play here, the system responsible for alerting Chileans also shows what happens when you decentralize authority among certain parts of the government:

the circle of blame continues in the courtroom. Fernández says that Rosende is at fault who, in turn, continues to blame the SHOA staff. What the investigation is revealing, however, is that such a grave loss of human life could have been avoided if a better emergency response strategy had been in place. It has brought to light a nation’s responsibility in having systems in place so that staff members are ready to act efficiently and cohesively in a state of emergency.

Indeed. We’ve seen this elsewhere in recent years, be it in New Orleans in 2005 or in Japan in 2010. That a powerful earthquake and tsunami happened off of Chile was just the earth doing what it usually does; that so many people lost their lives was not the fault of nature, but the fault of government workers who could have and should have been better prepared and able to act, and didn’t. If the evacuation warning is sent out, nowhere near as many people die in the 2010 earthquake as ultimately did; it was human failings, and not just the earthquake/tsunami itself, that lead to the deaths of over 500 Chileans, reminding us once again that all too often, “natural disasters” are really human disasters.

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About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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