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Chile quake takes out vital infrastructure

Engineers this week said that damage to vital infrastructure such as highways and airports would hamper Chile’s efforts to recover from a massive magnitude 8.8 earthquake that struck the nation on Saturday.

The earthquake struck on Saturday at 3.34am local time and was one of the most powerful ever recorded. Its epicentre was in the seabed close to the South American country’s second largest city Concepcion.

Major failures have occurred along the country’s only major highway. The country’s main airport in Santiago has also closed.

Around 1.5M Chileans were affected by the tremors, which caused buildings and roads to collapse and left 500,000 homes severely damaged.


“Chile is particularly vulnerable as it only has one main highway route. This will be a vital lifeline during rescue efforts. Having another cross-country route could speed up rescue and repair. I suppose the lesson is don’t have your eggs all in one basket,” said Ian Smith, Atkins chief engineer and chairman of the Society of Earthquake and Engineering Dynamics (SECED).

Arup associate director Ziggy Lubkowski agreed.

“In seismic zones we need to carefully plan vital parts of the built environment that will be needed by future generations.”

“Chile is particularly vulnerable as it only has one main highway route.”

Ian Smith, SECED

Despite the earthquake being 600 to 700 times more powerful, the level of devastation in Chile is only a fraction of that caused in the magnitude 7.0 Haiti earthquake in January (NCE 21 January).

So far, the death toll stands at just over 700 people compared to a predicted 220,000 in the Caribbean state.

Chile lies on the so-called “Ring of Fire” of interacting tectonic plates, and it is one of the most seismically active places on earth.

The country has experienced many big quakes, including the largest earthquake ever recorded, a magnitude 9.5 event which struck in 1960.

Saturday’s earthquake occurred when the Nazca tectonic plate pushed underneath the South American plate.

“Chile was prepared. It has a history of earthquakes in recent times and a much higher standard of design and construction than Haiti. Chile undoubtedly has a more robust building stock, though clearly structures have still failed”, said Lubkowski.

Chile earthquake graphic

The country has designed structures to approved seismic building codes since 1935. Several adaptations have been made to the codes, the latest of which was as recent as 1996. This is in stark contrast to Haiti which did not use recognisable design codes. Fortunately Saturday’s earthquake did not directly hit a main conurbation which lessened the destruction caused.

“The earthquake in Haiti was almost a direct hit on a metropolitan city. Chile’s earthquake occurred at sea and the energy spread over a much larger area”, said Lubkowski. “More communities were affected but to a far lesser degree.”

Rising damage

Lubkowski, a past chairman of SECED and the Institution of Structural Engineers’ Earthquake Engineering Field Investigation Team (EEFIT) said he expected fatality levels to rise, especially in coastal areas which were struck by huge tidal waves following the earthquake.

The Chilean government is currently assessing the cost of damage, which is predicted to rise to over £20bn.

UK aid organisations were quick to respond to the earthquake, with charities including Oxfam, Save the Children, ShelterBox and the British Red Cross pledging to help.

But communications and access problems hampered workers’ efforts to reach people who needed help.

“In seismic zones we need to carefully plan vital parts of the built environment that will be needed by future generations.”

Ziggy Lubkowski, Arup

“Access to the affected area is often difficult during the first 24 hours after an earthquake and it is deeply frustrating that it can take some time to get our staff to where they need to be,” said Oxfam deputy humanitarian director Jeremy Loveless.

“Our team has to drive over the top of the Andes on badly damaged roads to get to Concepcion because Santiago airport is still closed.

“Until it has been able to reach the affected area and complete an early assessment, we are unclear how we will best be able to assist the thousands of people affected by the quake. Chile has an effective emergency response system, and a government that is able to organise relief.

“At this stage, it is unlikely that we will need to respond in the same way as in Haiti but until our team actually reaches the affected area we will not know for sure,” he said.

Readers' comments (1)

  • Wow. 8.8 is one of the biggest recorded earthquakes of all time. My condolences for the families affected.

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