By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Chile and earthquake fatigue

I hope I’m not just channeling my own dysfunction, but it seems to me that interest in the Chilean earthquake is pretty limited. There’s plenty of coverage out there. But this is not a story people are talking about, especially in comparison to the Haitian earthquake. The reasons are pretty obvious:

  • Haiti is close to the United States, and Chile is on the other side of the world. Related to that is the fact that Haitian-Americans are a large minority group. Chilean-Americans are not.
  • Media consumers are suffering from earthquake fatigue.
  • Even though the Chilean earthquake was much more powerful, it appears that the death toll and the suffering will be far less than was the case in Haiti.

With that, a few ever-so-slightly non-mainstream sources for you to look at: If you’re not accustomed to heading for the Boston Globe’s Big Picture blog after something like this, well you should be. The New York Times is gathering user-submitted photos. Global Voices Online — which is holding its annual conference in Santiago, Chile, in May — has posted two blog round-ups, here and here. And Boston-based GlobalPost has uploaded a number of stories and photos from the scene and the surrounding area.

And let’s not leave out Boston’s Christian Science Monitor, a leading non-profit source of international news. A story on why Chile seemed so well-prepared, for instance, yields this gem:

Chileans are well versed in what to do during earthquakes, with drills part of every child’s schooling. “Just in case” attitudes, which might seem obsessive in other parts of the world, are the norm here. One woman says she turns off the gas valve every time she leaves the house, just in case a quake strikes when she is out.

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  1. Ron Newman

    The Boston area has a very large Haitian community, whereas I’m unaware of a Chilean community. This may account for the different reaction you see locally. Also, Chile may be perceived as a fairly affluent country not in great need of international aid.

  2. Neil Sagan

    Not just your dysfunction Dan, Americans and the American media have shown more interest in an Olympic gold medal hockey game than the biggest earthquake ever recorded in the America’s.

    What drove an outpouring of relief to Haiti was the media’s cooperation in covering the relief organizations that were prepared to deliver aid.

    I’d like to see media organizations do at least that, communicate what relief organizations are delivering aid and what aid is needed.

  3. Al Fiantaca

    Interest is limited for several reasons. First, because of the overwhelming disaster in Haiti, the coverage was also overwhelming, and now, both the media, and the viewers are suffering from a case of “been there, done that, what’s new”? Next, geologically speaking, even though the Chilean quake was much more severe numerically, its location may have been such that the damage on the mainland was not comparable. Add to that the fact that Chile is a much more functional country than Haiti is, was more prepared to withstand an earthquake, and respond to its damage, there doesn’t seem to be the death and damage factor that Haiti suffered. Lastly, Haiti is in our virtual backyard, and there’s a certain interest factor as a result. However, absent the time just after the Haiti quake, it would have generated much more interest. A curious aside arose this morning (at least when I heard it). Regarding the following tsunamis, Japan seemed to be “apologizing” for overreacting with its tsunami warnings. They didn’t seem to be as much of a problem in the Pacific Rim as had been expected. I think officialdom reacted out of fear from memories of the Maylasian tsunami disaster a few years ago, and didn’t want to risk a repeat occurrence. It sounds a little like local reaction to the recent faux blizzard, except that the risk to life was vastly greater in this case.

  4. Steve Stein

    @Neil – Not only was this NOT the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in the Americas, it’s not even the most powerful earthquake to hit Chile. There was a 9.2 in Alaska (1964) and a 9.5 in Chile (1960).

    Where earthquakes are common, not only is preparedness a learned skill, but also construction tends to be more robust. Places like Chile have both educational and physical infrastructure that Haiti just doesn’t have.

  5. Ron Newman

    Al – there were fatalities in both Hawaii and Japan from a Chilean earthquake in 1960. So I don’t think either country overreacted this time.

  6. Neil Sagan

    Thanks for setting me straight Steve. I heard that claim on television coverage over the weekend.

    There seems to be quite a bit of damage, death and suffering going on in Chile and places hit with the tsunami. Suffering do to lack of food supply, water and lodging.

    Is Dan right that the American media and American people are not reacting to this crisis as broadly as one might expect given how we responded as individuals and as a country to many natural disasters worldwide since …. New Orleans?

  7. Neil Sagan

    Look at this. Here are the rest.

  8. Steve Stein

    @Neil – don’t believe everything you hear on TV. 🙂
    Or read on the internet! 🙂

    I didn’t mean to suggest there was no (or even little) damage in Chile. An 8.8 is a terrifying and destructive shake. (The pancaked road is reminiscent of Oakland ’89 and that was magnitude 7-ish.)

    And in that pic, I notice there are a lot of buildings still standing. I haven’t seen similar pics of Haiti, but I imagine there were a lot more buildings damaged percentage-wise than in Chile, even though the quake was 50 times less powerful in Haiti.

  9. Neil Sagan

    The NewsHour had two segments on the Chilean earthquake tonight, one with a geologist who said this was the fifth strongest earthquake.

    Also mentioned was that their building codes are appropriate for areas the experience earthquakes but enforcement has been lax in recent decades. Older building fared better than new ones.

    The death count is in the 800s, far less than Haiti as of now but the destruction and disruption is widespread.

    Sec State Hillary Clinton arrived in Chili. I suspect she’ll try to get a sense of how the US can best help. There are over 18,000 Americans in Chili.

    The new head of state takes office in two week. What a time for a transition.

    I have not heard one call for aid. Have you?

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Neil: I was listening to a little bit of “The World” today. According to the story I heard, Chile has not had to ask for aid in the past and is only reluctantly doing so now. The president is asking for just a few specific things, like temporary bridges.

  10. Neil Sagan

    @Dan: Interesting. Thank you.

  11. Bill Toscano

    Dan: China is on the other side of thw world.

    Chile is in this hemisphere.

    I think you are overstating a little.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Bill: I think you are mistaking human-made maps and concepts like “hemispheres” with reality. I don’t have a globe and a ruler handy, but I’m pretty sure you’ll find that Chile is farther from the United States than China is.

  12. Neil Sagan

    The Christ Science Monitor has this take, a different take than The World:

    In the hours following the magnitude-8.8 Chilean earthquake Saturday morning, one of the world’s worst in a century, the country seemed miraculously spared, and the government declined immediate offers of foreign aid.

    Chile, after all, is one of Latin America’s richest, most developed nations. And, unlike Haiti – the continent’s poorest and least developed country – Chile was far better prepared to deal with Saturday’s monster quake.

    But after the death toll doubled Sunday to more than 700, with entire villages submerged by a tsunami, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet appealed for aid worldwide and said the catastrophe the nation faced was “unthinkable.”

    While telecommunications failures and the isolated nature of the destruction zone were to blame for a failure in initial assessments, some say the government was slow to respond and that it should have accepted help immediately.

    “There is a perception that the government did not correctly assess the gravity of the situation. There is also the pride of Chile, that Chile is not Haiti. It is like Japan, or the US,” says Patricio Navia, a Chilean columnist and professor at New York University. “There is a mistake there, that was probably the government’s fault. When earthquakes hit, it is perfectly legitimate for governments to take in aid immediately after.” link

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