Press Conference on Chile by Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator

2 March 2010

Press Conference on Chile by Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator

2 March 2010
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference on Chile by Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator

Catherine Bragg, Assistant Secretary-General and United Nations Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator, today again reiterated that the United Nations system stands ready to support in every way possible the Chilean Government’s efforts to recover from the devastation of the earthquake the country suffered four days ago.

Updating correspondents on the humanitarian situation in Chile following the earthquake that struck off its coastline at 3:34 a.m. local time on Saturday with a magnitude of 8.8 on the Richter scale, Ms. Bragg said senior United Nations officials had been in constant contact with the Government from the first days of the disaster, and Alicia Bárcena, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) Executive Secretary, had been on the phone with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Minister himself multiple times a day since the first day of the earthquake.

Giving the casualty figures, she said confirmed deaths, according to the Government’s count, now stood at 723 people.  Two million people had been affected, with some 1.5 million homes damaged to some extent.  At the moment, 19 United Nations staff are unaccounted for -- a number she described as “encouraging”, because, as of yesterday, there had been still over 60 unaccounted for United Nations staff members, all of them ECLAC staff.

In terms of the response to the earthquake, the rescue and relief effort was “firmly in the hands of the Government of Chile”, said Ms. Bragg, repeating what ECLAC Executive Secretary Bárcena told correspondents during a teleconference yesterday, that Chile was a “very strong Government” with strong institutions.  She added that the country was probably the best disaster-prepared country in Latin America, explaining that, in that regard, the country’s capability to handle the situation needed to be respected.

Following the preliminary assessment, the Chilean Government had requested very targeted priority items, which included field hospitals equipped with surgery facilities, autonomous dialysis centres, generators, field camps, satellite phones and related stations, structural damage evaluation systems, salt water purification systems, mobile bridges and field kitchens.  The Government is expectant that those needs would be filled largely through bilateral arrangements, and the United Nations needed to stay within the parameters of what the Government had asked for, and not to send anything that they didn’t ask for. 

Stressing that the Chilean Government was fully in the lead on coordinating all efforts, she noted that Chile was a country that had a very sizeable gross domestic process, and it was hoped that it would be able to deal with the fallout of the calamity.  Therefore, at this stage, there was no planning along longer-term recovery, yet.  At some point, the Government could very well come forward with requests for what it might need, and the United Nations would, at that point, respond accordingly.  She again stressed that the United Nations was fully prepared to help in any way possible in the event of such a request.  But, so far, no such request had come.  The Government itself is in the driver’s seat, there is no doubt about it, and they’re doing the coordination.  If they need our assistance, we will certainly be very happy to help, she said.

Asked by a correspondent if the United Nations had now received a request from the Government to proceed with moving into the country the World Food Programme’s 30 tonnes of food standing by in Ecuador, Ms. Bragg said, so far, the situation remained unchanged from yesterday, and the Government had not asked for food aid.  According to Ms. Bragg, the Government had announced that it would be able to supply the entire affected population with food and water.  And, at this point, the United Nations system saw no reason why it should be mobilizing other resources.  At the same time, this was still early, and, as with all disasters, as the drama and the situation unfolded and as more and more information became available, the situation could change.  But, at this point, the Government felt it was on top of both the food and water requirements of the affected population.  With regard to addressing the more than 1.5 million damaged houses, that would be in the long-term recovery.

She told the briefing that the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs had deployed what she described as a “very small team” to support the Executive Secretary and the Resident Coordinator and the United Nations country team, as well.  That “small team that had been dispatched to Santiago was expected to arrive there later today and, depending on how the situation unfolded, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs may actually have a larger coordination role.  But, at this point, the Government believed it was on top of the situation and was handling it well, because the country had strong institutions.

“The Government was handling the situation and [the United Nations] will do its best to support it, based on what we will be asked,” Ms. Bragg said.  For example, the United Nations country team had supplied the Government with a list of what each of the 22 agencies currently in Chile could offer, and so far, some of the tangible contributions consisted, for instance, of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) working with the Government of Argentina to arrange for field hospitals, and PAHO itself organizing other field hospitals.

The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs had also been in close touch with the Chilean Permanent Mission here at Headquarters, as well as in Geneva.  Thus, the Government was well aware of the services that the humanitarian system could offer, and stood ready to help in every way possible, she added.

Responding to a correspondent who wanted to know the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs analysis on the extent of the reported looting and whether the Government was in control of that situation, Ms. Bragg said that in every extreme situation you had desperate people who were trying very hard to help themselves in any way possible, as well as people who would take advantage of the situation.  She believed that the amount of looting should not be overplayed.  They were isolated incidents, and, in general, the country was very calm, with law and order, by and large, established.

To another question about criticism that the Government’s tsunami alert system had not worked well, or was not activated, which allegedly resulted in some deaths of people, particularly along the coastal areas, she said it was her understanding that the alert system had in fact been activated, although, in spite of that, there had been additional deaths because of the tsunami that followed the quake.  She believed those deaths to be of people who either did not hear the alert, or, after hearing the alert, were not able to get away in time.

While she acknowledged Chile had one of the strongest building codes, which made it well prepared for the disaster, she said, at the same time, it was unrealistic to expect any country to be prepared for an 8.8 magnitude earthquake.  “I think if I am not mistaken, it is the fifth most severe earthquake ever recorded in human history,” she said, adding, “So, no matter how prepared you are, there are going to be repercussions from something as big as this.”

Responding to a question about reports critical of the humanitarian coordination aid efforts in Haiti, where Haitian non-governmental organizations have reportedly been “blocked” from attending the daily meetings because they are unable to get into the United Nations compound in Port-au-Prince, Ms. Bragg denied such reports, explaining that it was her understanding that non-governmental organizations were, in fact, able to participate.

She also declined to draw parallels between the Chilean and Haitian disasters, saying there was no basis for comparison of the two.  The Haiti situation, as had been said many times since the first day, was the most complex humanitarian response the United Nations had ever had to deal with, and it would be very easy to make negative comments about coordination, as opposed to looking at how much progress had actually been achieved using the system available.  She said she believed that without the cluster system that was activated within days of the onset of the Haitian earthquake, a much more chaotic situation would actually be prevailing today that was the case at this point.

* *** *

For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.