Viva Chile! Nation rallies to help quake victims

by Carlos Hamann, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Mar 07 2010 06:25 PM | Updated as of Mar 08 2010 02:25 AM

CONSTITUCION, Chile - Chileans are volunteering by the thousands and heading to the towns hardest-hit by last week's powerful earthquake, often driving their own cars packed with donated supplies for disaster victims.

"Viva Chile!" read the words painted on the side of a Toyota SUV on Chile's main north-south highway, a large flag fluttering from the driver's window.

The car was leading a convoy of some eight vehicles of different sizes packed with supplies for the southern disaster area.

"Antofagasta is here to help!" read another sign plastered on a large container truck also heading south from Santiago.

In towns like Constitucion, which lost thousands of its historic buildings to the quake and saw its waterfront pounded into matchsticks by the tsunami that followed, trucks of all sizes, flags fluttering in the wind, raced into town and took turns Saturday unloading donated supplies at city-run distribution centers.

"This is working like a Swiss watch," beamed Cristian Valenzuela Aravena, the man in charge of donations and volunteers at the Ignacio Arrollo Gym, turned now into an emergency supply center.

The floor of the vast facility was covered with donations, and an army of volunteers, mostly high school and college students, busily filled plastic bags with rice, cooking oil, pasta and soap for the needy.

Valenzuela, a stocky man with a booming voice who is the city sports and recreation director, praised the volunteers for their work.

"Without the volunteers, this would be impossible," he said, then turned to help a pickup truck full of donations back up into a makeshift loading dock.

The truck was bringing powdered milk from the citizens of the southern city of Temuco. It was followed by another truck loaded with rice, sugar and blankets from a Santiago bus company.

Volunteers formed a chain to unload the trucks and moved the supplies inside the gym.

Soldiers in combat uniform with automatic weapons slung from their shoulder guarded the Arrollo Gym distribution point, but the crowd lined up outside was patient and polite.

"This is my first chance to get supplies," said a heavily-pregnant Ana Carmen Castro, who struggled to keep track of her four children, ages two through 12.

Castro lived on the waterfront until she fled with her family to the hillside area of Constitucion when the quake struck.

She was lucky -- unlike others, she refused to return.

About an hour after the quake, the tsunami slammed her neighborhood, smashing walls, hurling boats and cars around like toys, and sweeping off an untold number of people to the sea.

"I'm too scared to return," Castro said. "I haven't even gone to see my house."

The quake left about a quarter of the local population homeless, though the number is uncertain because many have packed up and left while others are staying with relatives in town.

Only around one-third of Constitucion's 50,000 residents have running water, but by Saturday two-thirds saw their power restored after a week in the dark, city officials said.

Teams of utility experts came in from Iquique and Arica, on the border with Peru; a search-and-rescue team drove in from the northern mining town of Calama; and paramedics arrived from different cities, including Valparaiso and Santiago.

Near the town square, some 300 Chilean soldiers, some from the far northern border, are billetting in a school, while Carabinero police reinforcements from Santiago are staying in another one nearby.

Soup kitchens run by foreign NGOs and UN emergency groups are noticeably absent from Constitucion.

Foreign aid is reaching Chile mainly as cash contributions, said President Michelle Bachelet's representative in the town, Laura Alboroz. Unlike Haiti, she added with a slight grin, the foreign-run soup kitchens are not necessary.

A team from the distribution center drove up to the hillside homes handing out bags to people who signed up with officials through their neighborhood associations.

"Thank you, thank you, and God bless you," said a grateful Margarita Salvo as she picked up a bag of supplies for her family.

"We've been without water for days, and this is a great help."