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Authorities step up search for victims amid the rubble

Video by Luke SHRAGO , Elisabeth ALLAIN

Latest update : 2010-03-03

With aid now reaching the population, Chilean authorities have stepped up efforts to search for possible survivors and recover the bodies of those killed by Saturday's devastating earthquake.

REUTERS - Rescue crews with sniffer dogs fanned out around Chile's earthquake-ravaged cities and villages on Wednesday, searching for survivors inside the mountains of rubble. 

Four days after the 8.8-magnitude earthquake killed around 800 people in south-central Chile, police and troops have managed to quell looting and violence in the hard-hit city of Concepcion, 115 km (70 miles) southeast of the epicenter.

But with tensions still running high in areas devastated by the quake and the ensuing tsunami, President Michelle Bachelet urged Chileans on Wednesday to rally around the relief and reconstruction efforts. She also sought to allay concerns of potential food and fuel shortages in the disaster area.

Conception relies on radio for getting information

"There is no shortage, there is enough food and therefore we must remain calm," she said. "There is also enough fuel, there is no risk of shortages."

An 18-hour nightly curfew was in place in Concepcion, Chile's second-biggest city, and 14,000 troops patrolled the streets in hard-hit cities and villages to keep order and oversee aid distribution.

Military trucks and helicopters set off from the quake-hit city of Talca with food and water for victims in other devastated areas, while rescue crews stepped up the search in coastal towns and hamlets from Concepcion further north to Constitucion for any survivors trapped in the debris.

So far, 799 people have been confirmed dead, either killed by one of the world's biggest earthquakes in a century or the tsunami it triggered along Chile's coastline.

The death toll is likely to rise, with some reports putting the number of missing as high as 500 in Constitucion alone.

The town, with a population of nearly 40,000, accounts for nearly half of the official death toll and was one of several coastal towns nearly wiped out by the quake and tsunamis.

Chilean emergency officials and the military blamed each other for not clearly warning coastal villages of tsunamis, angering survivors who lost relatives and friends in the massive waves that followed the quake.

"We had no idea, we only found out what was going on because some people saw the ocean swelling and we took off for the hills," said Isaac Lagos, a father of three in Coliumo, a small fishing village just north of Concepcion.

With looting now largely under control, authorities dispatched crews with dogs trained to find survivors and help pull bodies from the rubble.

Slow reaction

Bachelet, whose approval rating hit a lofty 83 percent in February, has faced mounting criticism for failing to grasp the scale of the tragedy in the initial hours following the quake.

She admits that rescue efforts have been slow, in part because of mangled roads, downed bridges and power cuts. But officials also misjudged the extent of the damage and initially declined offers of international aid.

During a brief visit, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered satellite phones to help in relief efforts and pledged more aid. Bachelet also reached out to other countries, asking for desalination plants and generators.

The disaster hit Chile, a model of economic stability for Latin America and the world's largest copper producer, just as it was bouncing back from a recession triggered by the global economic downturn.

Still, ratings agency Moody's Investors Service maintained a positive outlook on Chile's sovereign ratings, highlighting the strength of its public finances.

Most of the country's huge copper mines, a backbone of the economy, have returned to normal activity, easing supply fears that sent global copper prices sharply higher on Monday.

Incoming Finance Minister Felipe Larrain told Reuters on Wednesday he was studying different options to fund reconstruction.

Analysts say the next government, which takes office next week, may be forced to issue debt, tap into savings from copper boom times or turn to credit lines.

Some analysts estimate the damage could cost Chile up to $30 billion, or about 15 percent of its gross domestic product.

The disaster poses a daunting challenge for billionaire businessman Sebastian Pinera, a conservative who was elected president in January, ending 20 years of center-left rule.

Pinera ran for office pledging to boost economic growth to 6 percent per year, but could see his government undermined if reconstruction efforts drag.

The economy had been expected to grow around 5 percent this year but analysts see the quake eroding between one and two percentage points off that forecast.

 

Date created : 2010-03-03

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