Chile's president says it will take three years to rebuild the region wracked by an earthquake and tsunami, something all too clear to the people cleaning up this splintered tourist town.
Dichato is nestled between pine-forested hills and a lovely sheltered bay where colorful fishing boats served coastal communities and export companies. Its population of 4,000 triples each January and February with tourists — many were in town when disaster struck — and residents count on that brief summer vacation for much of their income.
The quake and tsunami killed at least 19 people in Dichato and smashed neat wooden houses and small hotels into huge splinter piles. The surge ruined most other buildings in town, which stank Thursday with decomposing fish. One fishing boat marooned far inland was full of rotting octopus.
|A soldier patrols in Dichato, Chile, Thursday, March 4, 2010. An earthquake caused a tsunami that hit Chile's coastal central region on Feb. 27.|
President Michelle Bacheletsaid Thursday that she is confident "Chile will rise" from the devastation — but not as fast as some might want.
She said it could take at least three years to bring the region back.
"It's going to be — it's going to be very hard moving ahead," she told ADN radio.
Bachelet's government had made a difference in Dichato, building 130 neat mustard-yellow duplexes in a public housing project that just opened in September and providing 60 million pesos — $120,000 — to restore the facades of businesses along main street, said Mabel Gomez, president of the local chamber of commerce.
But as they rooted through the remains Thursday, Dichato's residents said they are pinning their hopes for renewal on the new president, conservative billionaire Sebastian Pinera, who takes office next week.
"I think he has the ability to do it," said Luis Omar Cid Jara, 66, whose bakery and roast chicken shop on Dichato's main street were destroyed.
Pinera, who takes office March 11, named new governors for the six hardest-hit regions and told them to get to work even before his inauguration. His immediate priorities: Find the missing; ensure law and order; restore utilities; and tend to the injured.
Pinera also stepped up his criticism of Bachelet on Thursday as he called for a sweeping modernization of Chile's disaster system to eliminate what he called "the lack of coordination and the weaknesses that this tragedy has uncovered with brutal eloquence."
The president-elect said his administration will work more closely with the military on disasters than Bachelet has done, and he pledged to rebuild "with the most modern and efficient standards."
Critics said Bachelet initially was reluctant to summon the military to stop looting and deliver aid, given the armed forces' brutal repression of the Chilean left in the past, especially during the 1973-1990 dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.
Top military officers had complained they couldn't deploy troops to quash looting or deliver aid until Bachelet finally declared a state of emergency more than 24 hours after the temblor.
Touring an aid distribution center in the heavily damaged city of Concepcion, Bachelet denied any delays or indecision in the hours following Saturday's pre-dawn quake.
The magnitude-8.8 quake — one of the strongest on record — and the tsunami that followed ravaged a 700-kilometer (435-mile) stretch of Chile's Pacific coast and killed at least 802 people. The government said Thursday it had identified 279 of the dead.
Authorities have not said how many are missing but do say 2 million people were affected. They declared a three-day official mourning period starting Sunday.
The army was flying in 320 tons of aid, and the navy was shipping 270 more tons to coastal towns cut off from the rest of Chile.
In the coastal town of Constitucion, firefighters were looking for bodies of people swept away by the tsunami as they camped on Isla Orrego, an island in the mouth of the Maure River that flows through the city. Constitucion suffered perhaps the greatest loss of life in the disaster, in part because many people had come for carnival celebrations and were caught in huge waves that reached the central plaza.
"There were about 200 people in tents who disappeared" on Isla Orrego, Fire Chief Miguel Reyes told The Associated Press.
An Associated Press Television News crew witnessed several bodies being recovered, including that of a baby girl washed up on the beach.
Rescue and recovery were in full swing in Dichato, where firefighters used long poles to probe for bodies in huge piles of muddy sand and beach wreckage. The navy ferried troops ashore to help unload 86 tons of food.
Volunteers canvassed camps up in the hills created by people who abandoned their ruined property in town, fearing another tsunami because of frequent aftershocks. They handed out carloads of clothing and food.
Chile has asked other countries and the United Nations for help. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon planned to meet both Bachelet and Pinera on Friday and tour Concepcion.
Another earthquake with a preliminary magnitude of 6.3 struck late Thursday near Calama, 780 miles (1,260 kilometers) north of Santiago and roughly 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) north of the epicenter of Saturday's quake. There were no immediate reports of damage or injuries.
Both quakes occurred along the same tectonic boundary where the Nazca Plate, moving eastward, is forcing its way under the continental plate of South America, said Susan Potter, a geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey's National Earthquake Information Center in Golden, Colorado.