In the early hours of 27 February 2010, an earthquake of magnitude 8.8 on the Moment Magnitude scale struck the coast of Chile near the country’s second largest city of Concepción. The earthquake triggered a tsunami and the combined events resulted in the loss of 521 lives. The earthquake had a destructive force on buildings in Santiago, over 400km away.
My deployment to Chile came via RedR Australia and AusAID. The deployment was part of the offer by the Australian government to assist the Chilean government.
The Chilean Ministry of Planning’s need was for a Spanish-speaking structural engineer to conduct earthquake damage assessment. RedR Australia issued an alert to its register members for a one-month deployment to be available for departure within 48 hours. Potential deployees were advised that riots had occurred in Concepción, and that they should pack cold weather camping gear, seven days of rations, and water purification tablets, and generally be self-sufficient.
After “standing by” for a week, I was stood down because the Chilean government determined that it was able to meet its own needs. I was subsequently contacted by Save the Children (Spain) who wanted an earthquake damage assessment expert who would also be able to manage emergency shelter for vulnerable families with children.
To the credit of the Chilean government, in the last 20 or so years public buildings have been designed to rigorous standards that take account of earthquake loadings. Indeed the loss of life due to building collapse was relatively small in comparison to the deaths due to the tsunami that followed. Unfortunately a large stock of housing in rural areas is of adobe construction, most of which sustained severe damage, if not total collapse.
The Chilean government, Chilean NGO Un Techo Para Chile (A Roof for Chile) together with the Chilean business sector responded quickly by establishing an assembly line of emergency shelters (mediaguas). These were erected using a combination of Chilean army and community resources.
My initial role became one of designing improvements to the emergency shelters to ensure that vulnerable families with children were provided with the necessary improvements to enable them to better cope with the wintry conditions and the rainy season.
I left Chile six weeks later, having purchased the first batch of 200 emergency shelter kits and having engaged a local high school (severely damaged apart from its trades workshops) to warehouse, assemble, distribute and install the kits. Overall, the project delivered and installed improvement kits to 320 emergency shelters, 40 kitchen units, 80 bath house units and several water towers.
After working in several humanitarian roles I observed that, if there is one thing certain about humanitarian disasters, it’s their uncertainty. They can occur without warning, in the remotest of locations and impact those least prepared and least able to help themselves.
In my experience successful humanitarian workers are:
- expert in their subject matter, trained in humanitarian matters and already have overseas experience
- able to travel overseas at short notice, and stay for 6 months at a time
- willing to work in places they’d not ordinarily prefer to live in or visit
- able to adapt to changing scenarios or prepared to arrive, live and work amidst chaos
- willing to work sometimes 12 hours per day and six or more days per week
- comfortable with working in areas of conflict or civil unrest
- able to fit in
- motivated by humanitarian factors, not money.
My lasting impression of humanitarian workers is of a band of well-qualified, highly flexible, motivated, personable and dauntless people who live and play together amidst the chaos, in spite of the often minimal financial rewards and difficult working conditions.
As a professional engineer, I also discovered that the normal approach of conception, analysis, planning and implementation is often lost in the chaos, and the time spent trawling through university notes on threedimensional finite element structural analysis is often better spent swotting up on a catalogue from the country’s local hardware store chain.
by Alec Gray
Alec Gray is the senior planning and construction manager at the Australian National University in Canberra. He has been a registered member of RedR Australia since 2006.
This Chilean family was given priority to move into a prefabricated mediagua shelter.
The family with their new shelter. Alec Gray (in red vest) and a Chilean architect used the shelter as a prototype to test the materials and tools they had ordered.
Insulation and weatherproofing the shelter took two days, on the basis of which 200 more kits were ordered.
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