The government of Chile has declared a “state of catastrophe” following the 8.8-magnitude earthquake that hit 200 miles southwest of the country’s capital, Santiago, in the early morning hours of Feb. 27.
The death toll has reportedly reached nearly 800 people. The quake has affected an estimated two million people. News photos show collapsed highways, crumbled houses, and pancaked floors of concrete from Santiago south to Concepcion, Chile’s second largest city.
Slowed by a closed airport and damaged roads, Oxfam's emergency response team arrived in Santiago Tuesday morning and made their way to Concepcion, near the epicenter. Reports indicate the city was one of the most affected by the disaster. Team members also traveled to Constititucion, a coastal community hit hard by quake-triggered waves.
Oxfam's five-member team, including water engineers and logisticians, are assessing the situation and will return to Sanitago while the assessment results are considered and a decision is made on what Oxfam's response will be.
“Chile is a developed country with a very capable government and while it is unlikely that this disaster will be as severe as what we saw last month in Haiti, we want to be in place to help if we are needed,” said Frank Boeren, deputy director of Oxfam America's South America office.
In addition to the assessment team, Oxfam is planning to send some relief supplies–blankets, water buckets, and water filters–to Chile from a storage warehouse in Bolivia.
More than 90 aftershocks—some with magnitudes of 6.3 and higher—continued to rattle the region after the quake.
The disaster comes just weeks after a 7.0-magnitude temblor struck near the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince on January 12, leaving 230,000 people dead and more than one million homeless.
Poor construction practices, weak building codes, and a very limited ability of the government to respond added to the scope of destruction in that Caribbean country, the poorest in the western Hemisphere. Oxfam immediately launched an emergency response in Haiti, which includes the provision of water, sanitation services, and shelter, and aims to reach more than 500,000 people.
Though the quake that hit Chile Feb. 27 morning was substantially more powerful than the one that leveled great swaths of densely populated Port-au-Prince, the South American country is far better positioned to manage the consequences—and that will determine the level of Oxfam’s involvement.
“While this was a massively powerful earthquake, the capacity of the government in Chile and the resources it has available are fundamentally different from those of Haiti,” said Michael Delaney, head of Oxfam America’s humanitarian response department. “The role that Oxfam will need to play there will be markedly different from the response we are now carrying out in Haiti.”