5 March 2010
It is five days since the earthquake and tsunami that has claimed the lives of more than 800 people with hundreds still not accounted for and more than 2,000 homeless. Some 700 churches and chapels have been destroyed in the five dioceses that make up the most affected regions. While we as Columbans do not have any parish commitments in the most affected areas, we do however have many contacts and frequent pastoral involvement. I personally have been going to Concepcion once a month for meetings. Some of our lay missionaries, Pilar Vasquez, our priests, Fr Alvaro Martinez, our seminarians, Rafael Ramirez, members of JUCOMI (Chilean Columban Youth) Alejandro, all have family in the most affected regions. All of us have been affected by this natural disaster and each one has his or her story to tell. For many days to come, people will ask, 'where were you for the earthquake?' It is still the basic topic of conversation as if nothing else matters. One young university student said this evening, 'once I discovered that my family was safe and our house was still standing, I just knelt down and thanked God and then headed off to help those who were still on their knees under the weight of the cross that they were made bear'.
We have now realized that a tsunami occurred within five minutes of the earthquake and affected the coastal towns from Rancagua to Concepcion, some 429 kms of coastline.
I could only think of a comment made by John Moriarty, when he said that the sea is beautiful and majestic, a wonder of creation, an invitation to tread its waves, but yet it is a beast and it can as easily bring destruction as beauty and calm.
The tsunami has been very embarrassing for both the Chilean government and navy each of which on several occasions assured the country that we were well equipped to respond to such a natural disaster and it would not take us by surprise as in other parts of the world. When it arrived it took everyone by surprise and resulted in severe loss of life and massive devastation.
Chile has always been in denial that such a natural disaster was immanent.
It is only this evening that some of the affected regions have got their electricity back and they can see images on their television of the vastness of the tragedy throughout the country. Today many people are managing to make contact with their friends and relatives in various parts of the country and the world as mobile phones are charged and telephones systems are being restored.
We here in Valparaiso and Santiago have had our water supplies and electricity restored since last Monday. However in some parts the water supply is restricted to certain hours of the day. I have learned to live without a shower and spare the water in the bucket.
Santiago has got back to normal as regards transport and communication but transport in and out of Santiago is still difficult. Bridges on the main road from north to south known as 'Ruta 5 Sur ' collapsed during the earthquake, but the road is now open to emergency and relief traffic as the military have installed mechanical bridges.
This earthquake has brought out the best in Chileans and the worst. While most rallied to be of help and tried to keep calm, think on their feet and gather their immediate emotional reaction to do what was right and correct, others were empowered by evil for evil. They looted supermarkets and small businesses, left small shop owners with nothing to fall back on. These people laughed at the police and the press as they shouldered their merchandize away or transported it in pick-up trucks. Today some of the same people were selling their supplies on the black market, with no shame or self-respect.
This is very much in contrast to Matías Villegas and Miguel Neira from Rancagua who with a group of their university friends got together to cook and serve up to 1,200 hotdogs to people in the small villages along the affected coastline. Also there is Luis Gatica, a paramedic who lost his parents and his son in the tsunami in the village of Putú. He is presently giving himself completely to looking after the medical needs of the survivors of the village.
While Chile does have the resources to respond to this natural disaster, there is so much inequality, centralization and no autonomous regional government. This has been brought to bear in the initial slow response by the government to the regions most affected by the earthquake and tsunami. With the military back on the streets of Talca, Constitucion and Concepcion, a curfew has been put in place. And in the wake of all of this we foresee the likelihood of a right wing government taking power on 11 March. The scene is set for a very complicated, difficult and complex political and social reality in the immediate future.
This year Chile celebrates 150 years of its independence. The stage was set for a multitude of celebrations, two of which were cancelled over the past few days. The reality of the earthquake and tsunami has changed the sense of our celebration from rejoicing in a triumphal past to a building of bridges, healing of divisions and the creation of a new sense of hope.
Every Chilean has been invited to respond to this natural disaster. Friday and Saturday have been set aside for a national campaign for Chile to help Chile. While we have received direct help from Australia, the United Sates, Spain, Cuba, Argentina, Bolivia and Peru, the whole country has been called on to come to the aid of the victim of this terrible natural disaster. While all Columban parishes are committed to this campaign and church collections are being channelled through CARITAS CHILE, we as a region have decided to also focus our attention on some small towns and villages that are in great need and out of the limelight of the media. We have decided to support in the immediate and the long term the villages that are part of the parishes of Pencahue, near Talca and Hualañe, Licantén and Vichuquén on the costal region of Curicó. In Pencahue, a parish of 25 chapels, more than 1.200 houses have been totally destroyed and there is fear of the rains coming soon as we are into autumn. Fr Alvaro Martínez has already gone down to Pencahue, while I am going down tomorrow, Friday to Hualañe and Licantén. Both of us have collected food supplies and the local community here in Valparaiso have been campaigning for the past three days in solidarity with these places.
Many family members, friends and benefactors are asking how to help. I would like to invite all who would like to respond in any way to the work of relief and reconstruction, to support our Columban initiative by your prayers and generosity. The villages that we are supporting are poor and when the country moves on to other things, they will be very often forgotten about.
During these days of Lent, the reality of fast and abstinence has taken on a real meaning for many people here in Chile. While the Christian communities are aware of this Holy season, most people are not. They are however caught up in a moment in their lives when all of us ask, 'where is our God?' There is a yearning to try and understand it all and see the Hand of God ever present and ever near in our lives and planet earth.
Many thanks to each and everyone for all your support, interest, prayers and communication.
Fr Derry Healy
Father Healy, from County Cork, Ireland, is Regional Director of the Columbans in Chile.