Governmental role in reconstruction: A Comparison of post-earthquake in 1985 and 2010 in Chile

by Francisco Vergara


The context is a study of government actions in response to catastrophic earthquakes, particularly referring to reconstruction plans. The approach is based on a comparison between two seismic events in Chile: the first was on March 3rd,1985 during the dictatorship of the General Augusto Pinochet, and the second was on February 27th, 2010 during the last week of Michelle Bachelet’s government at the beginning of Sebastián Piñera’s administration. The aim is the role of the government as a manager of the postdisaster recovery process, focusing on the reconstruction strategies and policies adopted, primarily during the first year after the catastrophe, and interpret which are the political implications of these plans.

This essay tries to clarify if Chilean government has a policy for post disaster, or if the reaction is just in the hands of the current administration, which deals with the catastrophe in their own way. Furthermore, the study of these two cases, which occurred 25 years apart under two different governments with similar political goals, allows for critical analysis about the readiness of the state in order to respond effectively in case of an earthquake.

Chile is the most seismic country in the world (ECLAC, 2010) due mainly to its location along the “ring of fire” in the Pacific Ocean, an area of intense volcanic and earthquake activity. Every day of the year there is a seism topping 4.0 on the Richter scale in some place within Chile. The country is located on the boundary of the Nazca and South American tectonic plates. Consequently, there have been 13 earthquakes since 1971 with magnitude greater than 7.0 on the Richter scale, which qualifies as mega-seismic events. This phenomenon allows for interesting research to be conducted of the actions that the Chilean government has implemented in order to deal with this seismic condition.

It is interesting to examine how a neoliberal country in the global south faces these events. Since 1983, Chile uses the market to deal with the necessities of people, including social housing and essential infrastructure (MAYOL, A., 2012). The state shifted from being a developer of public buildings and social housing, to being a facilitator of projects to the private sector, detaching from its responsibilities a guarantee of quality. This change leads to an interesting analysis of the government role in dealing with catastrophic events. The predominance of the market as a producer of built environment was tested with these earthquakes. The capacity to respond and particularly the role of the government in the management of the private sector responsibility before a national crisis like a mega seismic event is of importance and critical to postdisaster policies.

This paper looks at this role through the scope of the two disasters and then reflects on how the Chilean government should deal with earthquakes in the future, in the view of preparation of fast and efficient response to catastrophes. This paper is not looking to analyse the specificity of each decision from each administration after the earthquakes, or criticise the technicality of the plans; the idea is a critical perspective about the attitude assumed and strategic actions developed by each government with similar contexts.

Facts and context about the earthquakes

The earthquake of March 3rd, 1985 had a magnitude of 7.8 Mw according to the Seismological Service of Chile. The epicentre was located on the coast approximately 20 km west of the town of Algarrobo. The quake lasted about 2 minutes. The regions most severely affected by the earthquake were O’higgins, Valparaiso, and the Metropolitan area of Santiago, covering a surface of 22.500 km2. According to Consolidate Report No. 1 dated September 2009, issued by the National Office of Emergencies (ONEMI), the death toll stands at 177. This report states that 142,498 houses were severely damaged and 75,724 destroyed. The loss in infrastructure was valued at about US$1.639 millions of dollars (ONEMI, 2009).

The earthquake of February 27th 2010 had a magnitude of 8.8 Mw according to the United States Geological Service. The epicentre was located on the coast, nearly 8 km to the west of Curanipe. This earthquake lasted about 160 seconds. The regions most severely affected by the earthquake were O’higgins, Valparaiso, the Metropolitan area of Santiago, Maule, Concepcion and the Araucanía, distributed across 98.100 km2. The Situation Report No. 6 dated March 2010, issued by the United Nation Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), put the death toll at 507 with about 370,000 houses severely damaged, many of which were destroyed (ECLAC, 2010). The amount of loss in infrastructure was about US$24 billion. Both quakes were long in time length, and with a longer frequency time of the undulant movement, the destruction of built structures without proper design becomes hard to prevent.

Other relevant factors are the quality of the new buildings. Many damaged ones were built after than Directive 433 of 1966, which regulates construction to ensure quakes resistance up to the magnitude of 9.5 Richter. In addition, the neoliberalization of the production of infrastructure and buildings reduced the capacity of the government to supervise and ensure the accomplishment of that directive. This situation meant that several new buildings were not up to code and were also damaged during both earthquakes.

The media reaction permits one to understand the impact of these events in the life of the Chileans, particularly the central zone. In a centralized country like Chile, if some hazard strikes Santiago, the rest of the country starts to fail. The press notes of each event related scenarios of desolation and crisis, reflecting on the fragility of life in a country used to be hit by this type of undesired situations. In some way, that fragility expressed by the press should be discussed with the government strength and readiness. That is the moment where people need their leaders to demonstrate their integrity and strength.

In the media, Pinochet’s government talked about promises of reconstruction without an institutional framework or even a plan to support the speeches. He created ‘aldeas’ (small villages) with temporary shelters and slowly made the earthquake topic disappear from the media, in order to turn back to calm and resume the government. In contrast, the Piñera’s administration and the way how they dealt with the reconstruction appears almost every day in the media. The problem is that many of that information comes from official sources, which have a distortion of the reality of the people whose houses were destroyed. Therefore, what appears in the media have no direct relation with the life of the people in shelters, producing confusion and undermining the credibility of the government.

Titular de El Mercurio Sismo Grado 8 Muerte y Destruccion

Image 1: The main newspaper of Chile the day after the earthquake of 1985, in this cover page entitled: Death and Destruction. (FORAL, W., 2010)

LA tercera terremoto y tsunami enlutan a Chile en el Bicentenario

Image 2: The newspaper of Chile 2010 entitled in: Earthquake and Tsunami put in mourning Chile on the bicentenary year (FORAL, W., 2010)

Government reaction after the tragedy

It is true that an earthquake is a huge tragedy for a country, and ensuring the welfare of the victims suffering effects of the tragedies is necessary for the state. The institutions are obliged to manage this chaotic scenario, and must prove how prepared they are to act.

“The reconstructions are opportunities for institutional learning” (VALENZUELA, N., 2012). In this line, the role of the government to respond efficiently to the problems of the society faces an interesting test how to put into practice their post-disaster strategies. Considering that Chile is the most seismic country in the world, one would hope that the state has a pertinent action plan.

About opportunities to encourage the presence of the government with the people, there are examples of evident contradiction. “Pinochet ignored the significant of the damages caused by the seism of 1985, gave scarce help to affected and did not stimulate research about the causes that triggered the fail or total collapse of the structures” (LAWNER, M., 2011).

The truth is that, in 1985, the application of the seismic norm for the building was in the hands of the private actors, and not regulated by the government (Ley General de Urbanismo y Construcciones, 2012). That was the cause why several buildings built in the last 2 years collapsed during the quake. Even worse, the government did not analyse the origin of the problem. It was a group of scholars at the engineering Department of the Universidad de Chile who critically and technically analysed the causes and then upgraded the Directive 433, about seismic resistance structures, from their own initiative.

Compared to the weak reaction of Pinochet in 1985, the recently elected president Sebastian Piñera, understood the situation of the earthquake of 2010 as a highly valuable opportunity to show the capacity of his new government. With a political team formed by several collaborators of Pinochet in the 80s, it seems they learned from their experience in 1985. Under the promise of the reconstruction completion by 2014, they began to create public-private alliances to accelerate the process of temporary shelter delivery within the first 3 months after the disaster, and then the reconstruction of definitive houses within the next 4 years.

Unexpectedly, however, the popularity of Piñera decreased progressively during his first two years of government as well as his credibility. The promise of government excellence in its ability to finish the reconstruction in four years (as Piñera declared in public (CHARPENTIER, D., 2010)) raised the expectations of the people, which then in turn fell into restlessness because the definitive houses in many cases were just a promised and not delivered.

One point of comparison that reveals the way to proceed is the financial strategy of recovery plans. The Pinochet government based the 70% of the total invested funding of the reconstruction process on international donations with just 12% of government contribution (ONEMI, 2009). The reconstruction process in Piñera’s administration is funding 100% with government fiscal contribution (MINISTERIO DE DESARROLLO Y PROTECCION SOCIAL, 2010).

The principal difference in the financing decisions between one administration and the other is that Pinochet did not change any law. Even he did not created particular economic tools to deal with the reconstruction. Piñera, however, changed the tax rates on different products and activities, modified the Copper Reserved Law to get money from the mining exploitation, and created the Reconstruction Fund to receive donations and manage the costs of reconstruction.






USD 34.000.000


12 %

USD 50.000.000

Chilean Companies

18 %

USD 200.000.000

International Donations

70 %


USD 19.000.0000.000


100 %

Table 1: Funds to finance the reconstruction process. Based on ONEMI, 2009 and MINISTERIO DE DESARROLLO Y PROTECCION SOCIAL, 2010.

The aim of this essay is not to analyse the financial strategy of each government, but these are demonstrations of completely different post-disaster policies. They also indicate the contradicting roles in responsibility assumed by the different governments of Pinochet and Piñera. However, in both cases these strategies were temporary.

Perhaps the widest difference between one process and the other is in the planning of the post-disaster recovery. This topic is hard to compare because Piñera’s administration has an extensive plan of reconstruction addressing many issues to resolve, from technical analysis of the problems to a reformulation of the regulatory plans for each city. On the other hand, Pinochet’s administration only produced a list of priorities and aims without even a mention about the issues of housing. This issue was in private actors hands, and the government did not get involved in it, taking distance from the problem.

However, a common lack among the two processes of reconstruction, is that none considered the creation of a technical body able to coordinate different ministries in case of emergencies to replace the weak and questioned ONEMI (National Emergency Office). There is a lack of the institutional frameworks in Chile, considering the number of hazards that occur each year. Therefore, it is necessary to have an institutional mechanism of response.

Effects and consequences

With the earthquake of 1985, for the first time since 1929, several new buildings were destroyed. The state control over the building processes was abolished to facilitate the investment of private actors in the city. Consequently, the application of Directive 433 was just a criterion, which not all builders were considering. This lack of control was evident after the seismic event.

On the contrary, in the earthquake of 2010 most of the newer buildings had a better reaction, avoiding collapse saving many lives. Even, the collapse of the Alto Rio building in Concepción, cost the life of 8 people despite being full of families, resting that early Saturday morning.


Image 3: Alto Rio Building.

Before the earthquake of 2010 and after. (HUALCHASQUI, 2010)

Because Pinochet’s administration ignoring the impact of the earthquake, offering scarce help and assistance to victims, the people started to create organizations. These were far from the government and in many cases were hidden from the public institutions. This process was assisted by different NGOs whose aims were related to human rights. After years, and with the necessity of shelter, the Chileans were starting to reorganize socially in order to achieve their goals. Probably, the seed of the dictatorship’s defeat in 1988’s plebiscite was planted from the indifference of the government in the face of the people’s needs in crisis times. In particular, due to the lack of post-disaster relief, this was unexpected considering a military administration.

In this topic, the reaction of Piñera’s administration was completely different. It is noteworthy though that he had an advantage: the earthquake occurred 6 days before he assumed the presidency, which was a proper time to get to the head of the country with a contingency plan. The public-private alliance to manage the reconstruction and accelerate the arrival of help to people was fundamental. Just in few days, they proposed a Reconstruction Plan with short, middle and long-term measures. The reaction was quick, and due to chaos in the streets of the central cities of the country the plan received widespread political and social support.

Nevertheless, Piñera’s plan was still a reaction instead a policy of post-disaster actions. The measures in the matter of reconstruction in Chile depend on the current administration and not on a law or an established policy. It is not wrong to say that the reconstruction in Chile is the product of improvisation and the skills of each administration.

Data on the relationship between megaseism events, and political administrations, show that in the 20th century every time one of these destructive events occurred, the current political alliance in charge of the presidency lost the next election. The only exception was with the earthquake of Chillan in 1939, when Chilean president Pedro Aguirre Cerda created institutional changes in order to face the problem almost immediately after the earthquake. This made the people thinks that the government was prepared to handle a catastrophe (LAGOS, R., 2011). For this occasion, even the famous architect, Le Corbusier, offered a reconstruction plan to Chillan, which at the end was declined by the Aguirre Cerda’s administration, preferring a more local strategy (MIRANDA, R., 2010).

If the historical pattern continues along this tendency, it is logical to think on the possibility of a second period of administration headed by the right-wing parties close to Piñera’s government. This considering that despite some problems, mistakes and media confusion; the reconstruction has been correct within an improvisational framework, which the Chilean institutional system offers.


After reviewing the government reactions and decisions in the last two earthquakes in the central zone of Chile, there are some observations and findings about the processes of reconstruction useful in discussing possible policies and institutional frameworks.

Seems to be evident that the role of the Chilean government in the management of disasters is fundamental. This concern should be institutionalized through an agency with the political and technical power to handle disasters. That means that this institution must be able to make management calls and drive reactions whether to tsunamis, volcanic activity, floods, drought, quakes, etc. The ONEMI has shown evident incapacity to address solutions and always depends on the other ministries to make decisions. Nowadays this is just an informational bureau about the situations instead of planning resilient cities.

Furthermore, the government reaction should not depend of the current administration. The decisions and actions must be driven by technical knowledge and not by political convenience. The presence of a procedure to manage disasters and post-disaster situations is urgent. Improvisation should not be allowed in the most seismic country in the world.

The deregulation of the building processes, particularly referring to the private realm should be reviewed and improved. It should not be a possibility that the application of the structural norms is just in hands of the private sector and it is controlled by the same private sector. One of the only ways to lower the fatalities in cases of earthquakes to zero is by increasing the control measures in planning, designing and building, and developing research supported with government funds, in order to avoid biased processes of product-promotion or structural techniques. In a highly seismic country like Chile, the role of the planners, urban designers, architects, and structural engineers is fundamental in order to save lives.

It is clear that the technical skill of the government has been improved since 1985. At the end of this essay, the analysis of both cases is clear and it is demonstrated the incapacity of Pinochet’s government to deal with the crisis. On the other hand, after 25 years, the responses and post-disasters plans are still dependant on the current administration. There is no post-disaster policy. When a natural disaster occurs, the destiny of Chileans is in hands of the ability of each President to make decisions and act properly.

To summarize, the idea of reconstruction as opportunities for institutional learning must be looked also as opportunities to prove institutional effectiveness and readiness. If the political world and governments continue experimenting with people’s lives in order to learn how to react, improvising creative and quick solutions instead of depending on a qualified technical institution, with power to rule decisions in crisis moments, the only consequence of that will be an eternal process of post-disaster institutional chaos, instead a proper reaction.