Report on the 2010 Chilean earthquake and tsunami response

Open-File Report 2011-1053
In cooperation with The American Red Cross



In July 2010, in an effort to reduce future catastrophic natural disaster losses for California, the American Red Cross coordinated and sent a delegation of 20 multidisciplinary experts on earthquake response and recovery to Chile. The primary goal was to understand how the Chilean society and relevant organizations responded to the magnitude 8.8 Maule earthquake that struck the region on February 27, 2010, as well as how an application of these lessons could better prepare California communities, response partners and state emergency partners for a comparable situation. Similarities in building codes, socioeconomic conditions, and broad extent of the strong shaking make the Chilean earthquake a very close analog to the impact of future great earthquakes on California. To withstand and recover from natural and human-caused disasters, it is essential for citizens and communities to work together to anticipate threats, limit effects, and rapidly restore functionality after a crisis.

The delegation was hosted by the Chilean Red Cross and received extensive briefings from both national and local Red Cross officials. During nine days in Chile, the delegation also met with officials at the national, regional, and local government levels. Technical briefings were received from the President’s Emergency Committee, emergency managers from ONEMI (comparable to FEMA), structural engineers, a seismologist, hospital administrators, firefighters, and the United Nations team in Chile. Cities visited include Santiago, Talca, Constitución, Concepción, Talcahuano, Tumbes, and Cauquenes. The American Red Cross Multidisciplinary Team consisted of subject matter experts, who carried out special investigations in five Teams on the (1) science and engineering findings, (2) medical services, (3) emergency services, (4) volunteer management, and (5) executive and management issues (see appendix A for a full list of participants and their titles and teams). While developing this delegation, it was clear that a multidisciplinary approach was required to properly analyze the emergency response, technical, and social components of this disaster. A diverse and knowledgeable delegation was necessary to analyze the Chilean response in a way that would be beneficial to preparedness in California, as well as improve mitigation efforts around the United States.

By most standards, the Maule earthquake was a catastrophe for Chile. The economic losses totaled $30 billion USD or 17% of the GDP of the country. Twelve million people, or ¾ of the population of the country, were in areas that felt strong shaking. Yet only 521 fatalities have been confirmed, with 56 people still missing and presumed dead in the tsunami.

The Science and Technology Team evaluated the impacts of the earthquake on built environment with implications for the United States. The fires following the earthquake were minimal in part because of the shutdown of the national electrical grid early in the shaking. Only five engineer-designed buildings were destroyed during the earthquake; however, over 350,000 housing units were destroyed. Chile has a law that holds building owners liable for the first 10 years of a building’s existence for any losses resulting from inadequate application of the building code during construction. This law was cited by many our team met with as a prime reason for the strong performance of the built environment. Overall, this earthquake demonstrated that strict building codes and standards could greatly reduce losses in even the largest earthquakes. In the immediate response to the earthquake and tsunami, first responders, emergency personnel, and search and rescue teams handled many challenges. Loss of communications was significant; many lives were lost and effective coordination to support life-sustaining efforts was gravely impacted due to a lack of inter- and intra-agency coordination.

The Health and Medical Services Team sought to understand the medical disaster response strategies and operations of Chilean agencies, including perceived or actual failures in disaster preparation that impacted the medical disaster response; post-disaster health and medical interventions to save lives and limit suffering; and the lessons learned by public health and medical personnel as a result of their experiences. Despite devastating damage to the health care and civic infrastructure, the health care response to the Chilean earthquake appeared highly successful due to several factors. Like other first responders, the medical community had the ability and resourcefulness to respond without centralized control in the early response phase. The health care community maintained patient care under austere conditions, despite many obstacles that could have prevented such care. National and international resources were rapidly mobilized to support the medical response.

The Emergency Services Team sought to collect information on all phases of emergency management (preparedness, mitigation, response, and recovery) and determine what worked well and what could be improved upon. The Chileans reported being surprised that they were not as ready for this event as they thought they were. The use of mass care sheltering was limited, given the scope of the disaster, because of the resiliency of the population. The impacts of the earthquake and the tsunami were quite different, as were the needs of urban and rural dwellers, necessitating different response activities.

The Volunteer Services Team examined the challenges faced in mobilizing a large number of volunteers to assist in the aftermath of a disaster of this scale. One of the greatest challenges expressed was difficulty in communication; the need for redundancy in communication mechanisms was cited. The flexibility and ability to work autonomously by the frontline volunteers was a significant factor in effective response. It was also important for volunteer leadership to know the emergency plans. These plans need to be flexible, include alternative options, and be completed in conjunction with local officials and other volunteers. The Executive/Red Cross Management Team took a broad look at the impacts of the earthquake and the implications for California. Some of the most important preparation for the disaster came from relationships formed before the event. The communities with strong connections between different government services generally fared well. The initial response and resilience of individuals and communities was another important component. Communication system failures limited the ability of a central government to assist impacted communities, or to issue tsunami warnings. It also delayed the response since the government did not know (in some case for several days) the impact and needs of local governments. In general, plans for congregate care shelters existed but were little used as most people chose to stay at damaged homes or with relatives. Looting was a surprise to response officials as well as social scientists, but both public and private sector organizations, including NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations), must consider security for damaged businesses as a priority in California’s multihazard planning. Class and ethnic divisions that become heightened during some cases of actual or perceived injustice may also emerge in natural disasters in California.

Several factors contributed overall to the low casualty rate and rapid recovery. A major factor is the strong building code in Chile and its comprehensive enforcement. In particular, Chile has a law that holds building owners accountable for losses in a building they build for 10 years. A second factor was the limited number of fires after the earthquake. In the last few California earthquakes, 60% of the fires were started by electrical problems, so the rarity of fires may have been affected by the shut down of the electricity grid early in the earthquake. Third, in many areas, the local emergency response was very effective. The most effective regions had close coordination between emergency management, fire, and police and were empowered to respond without communication with the capital. The fourth factor was the overall high level of knowledge about earthquakes and tsunamis by much of the population that helped them respond more appropriately after the event.

Study Area

Additional publication details

Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Report on the 2010 Chilean earthquake and tsunami response
Series title Open-File Report
Series number 2011-1053
DOI 10.3133/ofr20111053
Edition 1.1
Year Published 2011
Language ENGLISH
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Contributing office(s) Multi-Hazard Demonstration Project
Description vi, 60 p.; Appendices
Online Only (Y/N) Y
Additional Online Files (Y/N) N