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Post-earthquake Chile is not Haiti, and hopefully not New Orleans either

September 16, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    EPES  </span>
    Members of EPES Staff, Mercy Corps staff person Sara Murray (in red coat) and leaders of the emergency camp Eben Ezer standing by the recently installed banner on the Camp Eben Ezer community center: "Community Campaign: Wrapped in the warmth of solidarity, we protect our health." Photo: EPES

Six months have passed since the 8.8 earthquake and tsunami that flattened a large swath of central and southern Chile in February. Educacion Popular en Salud (EPES) is grateful to be working closely with Mercy Corps to implement the Comfort For Kids and Hacia Adelante (Moving Forward) programs for the emotional recovery of young disaster victims in the Concepción area.

Since April, when EPES held its first training sessions for 60 adult mentors, we have helped some 1,000 children in five cities overcome their fears and recover self-confidence through these interventions.

This six-month anniversary coincides with closing ceremonies in many of the schools and community centers that have so enthusiastically put these workshops into motion.

Over the past week, our small EPES team has been shuttling among programs, applauding children as they receive diplomas, cheering from the sidelines of soccer matches, receiving feedback from facilitators. The latter is especially important as EPES embarks on a second stage of collaboration with Mercy Corps to extend the program to an additional 400 children. Mercy Corps has also responded to EPES’ emergency appeal to protect 43 families in the Eben Ezer resettlement camp from the bitter winter cold by helping them add leak-proof roofs and wind-proof metal siding to government-issued shelters.

Joining us in this transition last week was Mercy Corps staff member Sara Murray, visiting from the U.S. Perhaps it was Sara’s company that alerted me to the fact that Chile’s half-year milestone coincided with the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. This led me to reflect on the similarities and differences between our experiences here in Chile, compared to the massive fatalities of Haiti’s earthquake six weeks prior to ours, and the ongoing road to recovery after the flooding of New Orleans.

If I could erase from my mind’s eye the still-vivid images of the Concepción coast reduced to rubble, how would I evaluate the landscape before me? The iconic images of destruction are few and far between; debris has given way to void; the gaping holes that allowed us to peer into crushed lives and dreams have been largely boarded up. The genius of the Chilean maestro chasquilla (jack of all trades) for improvising a solution — so maddening when one wants a permanent repair and not a makeshift one -- has been elevated from annoyance to virtue. The obvious drama of the most powerful quake in recent history is fading from view in many neighborhoods — but not its daily, and long-term, impacts.

“Chile is not Haiti” is a comment we often hear, and certainly this has been true in terms of loss of life and the government’s possibilities to repair public infrastructure. But poverty equals vulnerability both here and there. A natural disaster like an earthquake occurs arbitrarily but its victims are not random. The poor suffer the most.

“Chile is not New Orleans,” on the other hand, is a comment that do we hope, eventually, to hear. We don’t want to look back from the vantage point of five years to see that, despite the possibility of efficient government intervention, poor people are still displaced, waiting for solutions, their initiatives stifled by top-down strategies.

When we attempt to look at post-earthquake Chile from the eyes of others, in comparison to similar tragedies in different contexts, we feel heartened by the tremendous energy that our communities have been able to amass and unleash to revert the seismic damage. But we also see behind the facade to where the structural damage, both social and material, resides.

We don’t want to look back five years from now to realize reconstruction could have lead to transformation, but didn’t.

That is why EPES is committed for the long haul to the arduous task of collectively rebuilding lives, livelihoods, homes and communities. We are grateful for your accompaniment and support.