Chile quake recovery: Back to normal or long way to go?

A girl walks on 9 February 2011 amid basic houses in the coastal city of Dichato, 450 km south of Santiago, devastated by the quake and tsunami of 27 February  2010. Building new homes for the quake survivors has been the biggest challenge

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A year after her house in the town of Licanten came crashing down around her in the middle of the night, Erica Poblete's memories of the massive earthquake that struck Chile on 27 February are still vivid.

"I remember the cries and the shouts of people trapped in the rubble," she says, sitting in the wooden shelter that has been her home for nearly 12 months.

"The days that followed were terrible. We spent six weeks virtually living on the streets. We had one small tent between three of us. We slept in shelters made out of bed sheets. We used old paint pots as toilets. Until we finally came here."

"Here" is Villa Solidaridad, a makeshift camp housing 26 families who lost their houses in the quake.

Then and now

Men walk through debris on the beach at Pelluhue in the wake of the quake on 27 February 2010 (left); a child sits on the same beach on 25 January 2011 (right)

The shelters have electricity and water but the showers are cold. The walls and roofs are made of cheap, rough wood and are prone to leaks.

There is no oven. Mrs Poblete and her 15-year-old son cook on a camping stove.

Outside, dogs and children play in the dusty streets. Washing is hung out to dry on barbed wire.

People have used pot plants and paint to make the shelters feel like home but they are no substitute for the houses they lost.

"They're planning to build new houses for us but we have no idea when we'll be able to move into them," Mrs Poblete says.

Enormous task

It is a story heard across central-southern Chile. A year on from the 8.8 magnitude quake, there is still a lot of work to be done.

"More than half of what the earthquake and the tsunamis destroyed has now been rebuilt," President Sebastian Pinera said on Tuesday as he launched a new National Emergency Agency, designed to help deal with future natural disasters.

"But while recognising that we've rebuilt half … we also have to recognise that the other half of the job remains to be done," he added.

Counting the cost

Destroyed or damaged:

  • 220,000 houses
  • 3,700 schools
  • 40 hospitals
  • 1,500km roads
  • 200 bridges

Days earlier, Mr Pinera visited the fishing village of Dichato, virtually wiped off the map by the tsunamis that swept inland within minutes of the quake.

He was met by a small group of angry locals, dismayed by the pace of reconstruction.

"I know that it's taken longer than people would have liked, and longer than we would have liked," President Pinera told them.

"It's not due to a lack of will on our part, but we know that we're behind in areas like housing and health."

In its defence, the government points out the enormity of the task it faced when it assumed office on 11 March, just two weeks after the earthquake.

At around 550, the death toll was relatively low - certainly compared to the estimated 220,000 killed by the Haitian quake six weeks earlier.

But the economic damage was enormous.

According to the United Nations, the Chilean quake was the most costly natural disaster in the world in 2010, accounting for $30bn(£18.5bn) of the global damage put at $109bn.

Erica Poblete Erica Poblete says the psychological effect on people has been huge

In a relatively small country like Chile, the impact was brutal - $30bn is 18% of GDP.

A report published in January showed the percentage of Chileans living in poverty - a figure that has been declining for decades - rose to 19.4% in mid-2010 from 16.4% in 2009. It is widely accepted that the earthquake was to blame.

According to the government, almost all of that damage to infrastructure has now been repaired, although opposition politicians dispute that claim. Housing the survivors remains the biggest challenge.

"The housing ministry says it's approved 130,000 subsidies for the construction of new homes but that's not the same as saying that 130,000 houses are actually being built," says Felipe Cubillos, the head of a private sector foundation involved in the reconstruction effort.

"No one knows how many houses are under construction and I suspect it's not many."

On edge

Mrs Poblete says the psychological impact of the disaster has been huge, especially for children.

View of a damaged street in Talcahuano town, some 532 km (329 miles) south of Santiago (left); same location on 22 February 2011 (right) Infrastructure is being mended but many people's lives are still deeply affected

People want to forget the quake and move on with their lives, but the ground beneath their feet is still shaking.

In the year since the tragedy, there have been thousands of aftershocks including at least 10 of magnitude 6.4 or above - 10 quakes bigger than the one that hit New Zealand this past week.

Psychologists say post-traumatic stress is widespread.

Shortly after the quake, it was widely speculated that it had released pressure on the fault line running through the affected area.

But a study released in January suggested the strain has not been released markedly, and has in fact increased in places - a finding sure to keep Chileans on edge.

Thousands of survivors of the earthquake have already spent one Chilean winter living in tents and wooden huts.

As the summer draws to a close in the southern hemisphere, and the first winds of autumn sweep up from the Antarctic, many here are preparing to do the same again.

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