April 2014 Earthquake in Chile: We Are on the Right Track — Lessons Learned

Hector Miguel Opazo Santis

On April 1, a powerful 8.2-magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of northern Chile, triggering landslides, cutting power, and generating a tsunami. Hector Miguel Opazo Santis, an industrial civil engineer and CBCP, offers insights into how the region responded to the disaster, using lessons learned from a devastating earthquake that affected the region in 2010.

When DRI International approached me about the possibility of writing about the April 1 earthquake in Chile, I had no doubt that I wanted to contribute, because of my personal conviction regarding what is happening in my country with respect to the management of catastrophes after the earthquake of February 2010.

Because of the different magnitudes, distinct geographic areas, and a much lower population density in the 2014 affected area, among other factors, it’s not easy to compare the two earthquakes. However, it is necessary to work with these facts in order to fundamentally understand the elements of business continuity that allowed for the mitigation of the impact.

The public domain figures in Table A (page 14) are a comparison in terms of the existing information and estimated data for the most recent disaster.

With these statistics, we can draw certain conclusions. According to experts, the more recent earthquake in April released almost eight times less energy, meaning the force with which the ground moved was less severe than it had been in 2010. The number of households affected in the 2014 quake is 20 or 30 smaller than number of sufferers in 2010, a reflection of greater height of the 2010 tsunami and resulting destructive capacity. In the end, one can make comparisons from different angles and with different ends, but what is possible to conclude is that the 2014 earthquake was less severe than the one that took place in February 2010.

However, we should not fail to understand the importance of the 2014 earthquake’s magnitude and impact in the affected region. The April 2014 earthquake had a magnitude of 8.2 on the Richter scale. Comparable earthquakes of this magnitude include Haiti in 2010 (Richter magnitude 7.0, 200,000 dead), Pakistan in 2005 (Richter magnitude 7.6, 86,000 dead), Indonesia in 2004 (Richter magnitude 8.9, 280,000 dead), and perhaps the most apt example, Chile in 2010. Without doubt, we are in the presence of an impressive earthquake.

Most interesting from a business continuity perspective is understanding the actions that Chile has taken since the 2010 earthquake and how these actions profoundly helped us to better manage the emergency. Without these initiatives, we would be lamenting a much worse scene; though it may not have been as bad as 2010, we would have experienced a much worse impact. These actions have put us precisely on the right track in terms of business continuity.

Lessons Learned from the 2010 Earthquake

From the previously stated facts it is clear that there has been a notable advance in the management of many actions, rooted in the DRI Professional Practices, which mitigated the impact of the 2014 earthquake.

1. Preventative measures and risk controls

a. Preventative evacuation

The concept of preventative evacuation along Chile’s coasts has existed for quite some time. There is a historic precedent amongst coastal inhabitants of evacuating in case of earthquake, but without clear indications of when or how to do so.

In light of the grave consequences of the 2010 earthquake and resulting tsunami that hit Chilean coasts, with the tsunami being the cause of more deaths, coastal communities have since implemented various procedural improvements.

The concept of self-evacuation was created, encouraging people to leave if the earthquake caused them to lose their footing in a coastal area. It is important to keep in mind that tsunamis take time to arrive at a coast after an earthquake has ended. The population was able to use this indicator as a primary parameter for evaluation.

Communities also communicated evacuation routes: the roads that they should use, and the predetermined meeting points. All of this was reinforced through signage installed on the beaches.

b. Training and awareness

Training and awareness programs at the time of the 2010 earthquake were unclear. There were supportive programs such as the civil protection academy, the implementation of trainings in high schools, and others, but there was no formal program. This resulted from a failure to realize the importance of training, and/or a lack of resources available to do so.

In the last four years, an official training program has been created, called “Chile Preparado.” This program contains simulation exercises for tsunamis (the processes of which were utilized during the recent tsunami), avenues to increase public awareness and participation, and the distribution of graphic material and awareness videos to large venues (cinemas, stadiums, concerts, high schools), among others. There has been an enormous advance since 2010.

Screen shot 2014-07-07 at 2.03.19 PM

2. Alert messages (crisis communications)

a. Emergency alert management protocols

In 2010, there was an emergency alert protocol. Messages were published through the federal government, but there were likely gaps in its implementation, resources, and processes. What stands out here is the centralized decision- making, which resulted in little regional autonomy with respect to preventative alerts – making it impossible for the affected regions to order their own evacuations.

As a result of the difficult experience during the 2010 earthquake, the protocol was recreated, establishing autonomy for Regional Alert Centers allowing preventative evacuations. Additionally, the government redesigned the structure of the National Emergency Operations Center and Regional Emergency Operation Centers. Each office was responsible for running drills that allowed participants to prepare themselves for emergencies such as the 2014 earthquake. The regional centers were also provided with spaces outside of flood zones in which they could continuously evaluate the management of the emergency and coordinate the response.

b. Alert mechanisms

In 2010, Chile’s oceanography agency, SHOA, was only beginning to implement its 24/7 alert management system. And Chile’s seismology agency, SSN – which should have been providing the seismic parameters that allowed SHOA to determine the risk of a tsunami – did not have any type of 24/7 alert system at all. Additionally, Chile’s seismological network was only really prepared for scientific investigation and needed a minimum of ten minutes to obtain new infor- mation. All of this, compounded by weak existing telecom- munications, prevented authorities and technical bodies from being able to communicate with affected regions. By the time announcements were made about the tsunami, the first waves had already started to hit some zones.

In the last four years, we have seen real advancements. The National Office of Emergency Management (ONEMI), SHOA and SSN have 24/7 alert systems in place. They have also determined clear protocols for coordination that have been tested, and created clearly defined and understandable messages for listeners. The effects of these improvements were seen in 2014, as ONEMI was able to quickly order a preventative evacuation, while SSN and SHOA effectively publicized the magnitude of the earthquake, and rang the alarm for the coming tsunami.

3. Emergency response

a. Coordination of the Emergency Operations Center (COE)

Without doubt, the federal government made a great advance in emergency management between the years 2010 and 2014. The function of the COE in 2010 was not very clear. Its structure, roles, and processes gave the impression that the COE lacked predesigned coordination.

Despite having been established, the centers of emergency operations on a regional level were not yet operating (at least not in a formal capacity), remaining isolated from the central agency. There weren’t many initiatives for training and awareness either at the federal or state level.

In light of the experience in 2010, the agencies took the opportunity to define roles and reformulate their alert system, including mechanisms for activation, scaling, and announcement locations. They were also able to execute exercises on national and regional levels.

All of these improvements were in place when authori- ties responded to the 2014 earthquake, clearly defining response procedures and the roles of the responsible parties.

b. State of emergency

The state of emergency, perhaps the most effective control in terms of social protection, has been a controversial tool. In its simplest form, a state of emergency consists of relinquishing control to national armed forces to create order in disaster zones.

During the 2010 earthquake, a state of emergency was only declared 36 hours after the earthquake. This allowed for a series of lootings in the Bio Bio region and a lack of citizen security.

Here is a major lesson learned: As a result of the technical advances previously discussed, a state of emergency was declared only 2 hours after the 2014 earthquake, preventing any vandalism attempts in the north of the country.

c. Management of emergency communications

During the April 2014 earthquake, important changes in terms of communications were evident.

In 2010, all communications were delivered by the president, creating some confusion regarding the roles of the emergency managers.

But as a result of the strategy designed by the Secretary of Communications between 2010 and 2014, all communications to the press are now given by the Minister of the Interior, who also presides over the national COE. In the event that he is unavailable, the natural replacement spokesman was the director of ONEMI. It was always one of these two people who delivered technical news.

Meanwhile, the president’s communications role is to maintain calm amongst the people and deliver summaries of the information provided by the technical spokesman.

All of the actions described, resulting from the lessons learned during the traumatic events of 2010, positively impacted emergency management in April 2014. Furthermore, if you examine them in detail, you see that they are very aligned with the DRI Ten Professional Practices. In this way, Chile aligned itself with the best practices of business continuity professionals.

Possibilities for future improvements

Now comes what may be the most difficult part: reconstruction and the return to normal. The goal of any organization is to be able resume normal business functions as soon as possible following a disruption. However, the effects of earthquakes of the magnitudes we have discussed are always costly, and the recovery process can be too long, due to the collapse of public and private infrastructures and the loss of lives, services, and much more.

The challenges in the future are many and varied. Therefore, I have established some improvements.

1. Reinforce the concepts of evacuation, habitable locations, continuing drills and more

Prevention, training and awareness will always be important. There are zones to the south of the country that have not had a disruptive event in many years. We must work diligently to improve preparedness in these areas so they can benefit from having a trained, coordinated population.

2. Revise the structure of the COE depending on the emergency and flexibility

The structure of the national COE remains the same. We have different types of disasters and therefore distinct recovery plans. Emergency and operations teams should be able to conform to the nature of the emergency. Here there are many opportunities for improvement in terms of training and the functionality of the COE staff and their roles.

3. Continue alert measures such as the installation of seismographs

Investment in preventative measures is always desirable. In the case of Chilean coastlines, it is necessary to continue investing in a more complete, functional network of seismographs in such at-risk areas.

4. Possible shelters for basic functions; recovery process for essential functions

It is very important to continue developing efforts related to this theme. What if we are not able to return to normal as quickly as we thought, and people remain evacuated or in shelters for an extended period of time? We need to develop a structure that allows for affected populations to remain in temporary housing for longer periods of time, until their communities are able to achieve at least partial recovery.

5. Facilities in critical areas

In some critical zones there are technical and public agency facilities that can still be reached by the effects of a tsunami. These actors are part of emergency management and in some cases participate in regional COEs (municipalities, hospitals, airports, armed forces bases, and others). Therefore, we must establish a plan to relocate the technical and public agencies that are necessary during emergency response and management.

6. Regulation and standards

Chile has high standards for construction. We are a country with constant seismic activity, forcing us to build and create standards with this reality in mind. We should continue advancing in terms of regulation and inspection as we discover new building techniques.

7. Recovery and restoration

This is perhaps the biggest challenge ahead of us – we must emphasize actions related to recovery and restoration. There has been little development and there is much to do. To start, we must analyze international cases to provide a basis for initiatives such as the creation of reconstruction processes, and the establishment of frameworks for short- and long-term restoration.

Conclusions

Chile is a country that has been and will always be constantly exposed to earthquakes and tsunamis, many on a grand scale. The strongest earthquake in Chile’s history occurred in 1960. This threat will always exist and we must learn to live with it.

The implementation of a government continuity of operations plan (COOP) is urgent and business continuity plans are necessary. We are moving forward on the right track, but it is only the tip of the iceberg. These recent experiences have tested us as a country, but they have also taught us invaluable lessons. The reforms carried out since 2010 in emergency management, controls, and training were justified when positive effects were seen in 2014. We cannot directly compare the circumstances of the two earth- quakes – but many of the events of 2010 could have been mitigated or even eliminated with proper planning on the part of the planning administration.

The road ahead is clear, but we cannot know when we will next be struck by an earthquake: in a month, a year, or a decade. We are left to gather the experiences of the recent disaster, fix what seems to be broken, and hit the gas. There is much to do, and we don’t have a second to waste.

Translated by Kelsey Rose.

BIO: Hector Miguel Opazo Santis is an industrial civil engineer in Chile with a degree in Master Business Engineering and credentials in project evaluation and information systems management. He is a DRI Certified Business Continuity Professional (CBCP) with almost 20 years of experience in the technological world, working as a consultant and in applied technology development in Latin America and the United States. He has served in management positions in various industries: consulting, banking, commerce and others. He has specialized in project management, online sales, disaster recovery, and project evaluation for technology. Currently, Opazo works as a consultant with Resilience Chile and is a professor at Andres Bello University working with technological innovation projects. He can be contacted at hmopazo@resilchile.cl

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