From Volume 38, Issue 14 of EIR Online, Published Apr. 8, 2011

Ibero-American News Digest

Ecole Polytechnique Built Chile's Seismology Service; Pinochet Gutted It

April 2 (EIRNS)—Leading Chilean seismologist, Armando Cisternas, has documented the role of French seismologist Fernand Matessus de Ballore, of the Ecole Polytechnique, in setting up and serving as the first director of the Chilean Seismology Service, from its founding in 1907 until his death in 1923. At the time he was recruited to set up the service by President Pedro Montt, Matessus de Ballore was the Ecole Polytechnique's Director of Studies.

As head of the new Chilean Seismological Service, Matessus de Ballore established "one of the best seismological networks of the time," Cisternas wrote in 2007, carrying out "an impressive work on the collection and interpretation of worldwide earthquake data." In fact, the first issue of the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America published on its first page, a map of the distribution of seismological stations in Chile.

By the early 1970s, Chile's Seismological Service, based at the Geophysics Department at the University of Chile, had become the most advanced in Ibero-America, with 19 monitoring stations established along the length of the country, along the Pacific Rim of Fire. The university had trained several top-notch seismologists, and was able to send several students abroad for further training in the U.S. or Europe.

As reported by Dr. Cisternas, who teaches at both the University of Chile and the Pasteur University in Strasbourg, France, all this changed when the fascist dictator Augusto Pinochet took over in 1973, with the backing of the equally fascist banker Felix Rohatyn. The Seismological Service was gutted: decentralized, and effectively privatized, depriving Chile, the most seismically active nation on the planet, of a centrally functioning agency capable of monitoring and warning of seismic events.

Cisternas, a graduate of CalTech, speaks bluntly today about the state's responsibility in making the necessary investments, and ensuring there is a functioning, centralized seismological agency, capable of protecting the population from earthquakes and tsunamis. This is not a task for universities, he states emphatically. The state must act. Today, there are only six seismologists in all of Chile.

Since the Feb. 27, 2010 earthquake in Chile, measuring 8.8 on the Richter scale, Cisternas has pointed repeatedly to a 2007 study done by a group of Chilean and foreign seismologists who warned that the region of Concepcion-Constitucion in south-central Chile was the likely site for a major earthquake, and in fact that is where the 2010 quake occurred. It is also lunacy, Cisternas charges, that while Chile has established excellent standards regarding building construction to prevent earthquake damage, on a par with Japanese standards, there are no such standards regarding protection from a tsunami. How is it possible, he asks, that tall buildings, including hospitals, schools, and tourist hotels, are being built along the Chilean coast? In the event of a tsunami, they will all be washed away, and tens of thousands of lives lost. It is insane that the profit motive determines where certain buildings are built, rather than concern for human life, he argues.

Mexican Authorities Begin to Awake to Earthquake Danger

March 30 (EIRNS)—Citing Japan's experience, Mexican President Felipe Calderón convoked a meeting March 29, involving the Secretaries of Defense, Navy, Government, Public Security, and Treasury, and other civil protection and national security officials, and ordered that earthquake preparedness plans be reviewed.

The government of Mexico City, where 20 million-plus people live atop the largely soft soils of a former lake-bed in a highly-active seismic area, announced that it will carry out 15 earthquake drills between now and the Sept. 19 anniversary of the 1985 earthquake in which over 10,000 people died. Public agencies' response to a simulated M8 quake were tested on March 28; drills of what to do in an earthquake were held in all public and private schools on April 1; drills will be conducted in hospitals the following Friday, residential neighborhoods the Friday after that, and so on, culminating in a citywide simulation on Sept. 19. Mexico City Gov. Marcelo Ebrard noted in announcing this that "the serenity and organization of the Japanese people in the last earthquake reminds us of the importance of being prepared for disaster and knowing how to act."

"In Mexico, There Will Be Earthquakes," El Economista columnist Enrique Campos Suárez wrote in a biting March 20 column questioning the government's and the population's actual commitment to do more than talk about the danger.

"In this country, instead of running out to protest against the Laguna Verde nuclear plant, which is in an area far from earthquakes and tsunamis, we should inspect what our buildings are made of, and procedures in case of earthquakes. Researchers at the National Autonomous University of Mexico inspected 50 Mexico City buildings, and found that 20% of them do not meet safety standards necessary to resist an earthquake," he wrote.

"There are areas in Mexico City where construction should not be allowed, because it is proven that the subsoil ensures magnification of the earthquake. In countries where there are quakes, and laws are respected, these areas are converted into parks," he wrote. "In Mexico ... they become future cemeteries."

Caribbean Tsunami Early Warning System Is Flawed

March 30 (EIRNS)—The March 23 CaribeWave II exercise, the first held to test the efficacy of a tsunami early warning system for 34 Caribbean nations, revealed that many participants' emergency preparedness plans, and the infrastructure needed to make such plans work, were significantly lacking.

The exercise was to test emergency responses to a fictitious 7.6 magnitude earthquake off the coast of the U.S. Virgin Islands, which generated a "dummy" tsunami whose waves reached up to ten meters in height. Simulated alerts were sent out from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center and the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center, operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). National authorities receiving the alerts were to advise the public through sirens, text messages, e-mail, media outlets, and telephone.

The exercise did not involve moving populations, but according to Irina Bokova, director-general of UNESCO, the UN agency which set up the early warning system, the people of the region "keenly followed the exercise." Indeed. They would no doubt like to know how governments intend to protect them in the event of a major natural disaster.

What were described as "gaps" in the transmission system included the fact that the alert message was not received by the Global Telecommunications System (GTS). There were also cases in which reception of messages via the Emergency Managers Weather Information Network (EMWIN) failed. Few mobile phone operators participated in the exercise at the national level.

In the Dominican Republic, authorities discovered that there were no evacuation plans. In the U.S. Virgin Islands, officials found that radio stations could broadcast an alert in Spanish, but not in English! In addition, the emergency broadcast signal was weak.

In Puerto Rico, which was participating in an exercise of this type for the third time, under the name LANTEX, many citizens reported that they never heard the sirens that were supposed to alert them. According to the National Weather Service, only 11 of Puerto Rico's 44 coastal municipalities are prepared to respond to a tsunami. Alfonso Jiménez Porrata, head of the Emergency Alert System, warned right after the Japanese earthquake/tsunami that his agency is not prepared to transmit information or instructions to the public, in the event of such a catastrophe. Towers and other infrastructure couldn't withstand a tsunami.

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