Lessons Learned on Natural Disasters in Chile

Lessons Learned on Natural Disasters in Chile

By Dialogo
November 13, 2015

Being trained is critical to saving the dignity of people affected by any disasters...key word UNION and PROTOCOL...


The vast majority of earthquakes in Chile are related to the convergent movement of the Nazca and South American tectonic plates, which accumulate a lot of energy when they push against each other. But the country is also home to 90 active volcanoes scattered throughout its nearly 3,107 mile–long territory. So far this year, Chile has suffered floods, forest fires, volcanic eruptions and a powerful earthquake followed by a tsunami.

Facing natural disasters forced the country to cope with these events effectively, and turned it into a benchmark for the rest of the world.

Captain Alberto Soto Valenzuela, head of the Strategic Planning Department of the Chilean Joint Staff, recently visited U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) to coordinate the Command, Control and Interoperability Board between the Armed Forces of the United States and Chile. Diálogo
took the opportunity to talk to him about the country’s lessons learned in matters of natural disasters.

DIÁLOGO:
I suppose you are very busy, given the level of activity Chile faces with regard to natural disasters. How do you manage your time?

Captain Alberto Soto Valenzuela:
My work, which was previously associated with a planning role, is now associated with operations. But in practice, the whole process of improving the protocols and reaction by the Joint Staff and the coordination of the Armed Forces was indeed part of my job. There has been a breakthrough in Chile in recent years in this regard. Starting in 2010 as a result of the magnitude-8.9 earthquake and tsunami we had at the time, we had to understand that we had a major challenge as an organization. We basically had to improve the way we were able to react to a disaster of that magnitude. From 2010 to date, we have had nine more natural disasters. And in practice, in the last two years, we have had seven major natural disasters of significant magnitude. This has forced us to improve. The truth is that, at least from my point of view, we have improved, and we have gained a lot of experience. We have also learned the hard way how to cope and how to coordinate the Armed Forces and interact with society to face these kinds of major emergencies.

DIÁLOGO:
Can you draw a parallel between the 2010 earthquake and the one from last September?

Capt. Soto:
Our interaction with civil authorities has radically improved. The mutual understanding between the authorities and civil organizations and between government authorities and organizations and the armed forces has also improved a lot. As a result, our knowledge has greatly improved; we have a greater depth in personal knowledge and a deeper knowledge and a greater improvement of procedures. The procedures have changed in Chile at the level of defense. They were created at the level of defense but they have now been modified and adapted to a new reality at the political level. Therefore, the whole system of reaction to natural disasters in Chile has greatly improved since 2010. And now, a new law is about to be enacted to further enhance them and basically take into account all the lessons learned from the past four or five years. We are far from perfecting this, but if you compare how we do it today to how it was done five years ago, you can see that there is currently a reduced amount of deaths as a result of disasters we have had.

DIÁLOGO:
Can you name three major lessons learned?

Capt. Soto:
The first one is that personal knowledge is vital. If we do not know the people involved in the various organizations on the political, civil, and military levels personally, the friction increases. When we know people, and we know how to act with them and know the responsibilities of each one, this greatly improves. The second, at the level of defense, is to have the proper protocols to deal with natural emergencies. Making contingency plans for the country’s security or defense is not the same as making them in response to a natural disaster. It is another type and another form of threat. Yet it is equally impactful. And the third is to salvage a deeper use of the lessons learned from each disaster.

DIÁLOGO:
In relation to the second lesson learned, the proper protocols, what do you mean?

Capt. Soto:
It means that all fields of interaction between civil authorities and the armed forces relate to each other at a joint level, and there must be an adjustment between them in order for them to be able to cope with the demands of a natural disaster. For example, if there is a specific requirement for the Armed Forces it has to be formulated in the right way, with the information required by the Armed Forces in order for them to deliver it to other forces or at the joint level so that the requirement is adequately met. The way the cost control is carried out during an emergency is important, for example. At first maybe not, but then one has to optimize how we use the means of the Armed Forces to meet multiple requirements.

DIÁLOGO:
And how does interoperability between the Armed Forces, the police, and civil authorities occur?

Capt. Soto:
The Ministry of Interior is at the national level. In Chile, however, the National Emergency Office serves as its action branch, and it interacts with the Armed Forces when major disasters occur in the country. They interact through the Joint Staff, [which serves as] a body of coordination that has no control over the Armed Forces for this. Therefore, the requirements that are assigned to the Ministry of the Interior or other ministries are processed through the National Emergency Office in what is called the Committee on National Emergency Operations, which interacts with the Joint Staff through the Defense Operations Center and delivers the requirements to the Armed Forces individually and coordinates them. All levels have emergency operations committees. But when the disaster is national, when more than one area of the country is impacted by the disaster, the Committee on National Emergency Operations convenes to coordinate all the actions of the non-governmental authorities or NGOs. And from there it flows to various regions with different committees on emergency operations from where one coordinates with the local level on what is occurring.

DIÁLOGO:
At a constitutional level, is that a permanent role of the Armed Forces?

Capt. Soto:
Yes, the Chilean Constitution provides that when states of constitutional exception are introduced, the Armed Forces have an important role to play in connection with natural disasters. Chile has had legislation on this [issue] since 1965, with the so-called Law of Earthquakes. But, in addition, there are laws and regulations that stipulate that the Armed Forces must play a specific role during a state of constitutional exception. There are four states of exception, two of which are used for disasters: emergency and catastrophe. In such cases, the roles of the Armed Forces are the emergency control at the regional level and the coordination of the Armed Forces. While the head of the National Defense (who is a military officer) is in the disaster area, assumes responsibility for all state agencies, he coordinates with the civil authorities but has control of public order, logistics, the reaction of the state, and all state agencies to control the emergency. But that is for a state of constitutional exception. We are talking about major disasters and catastrophes that cause an interruption, an inorganic or deficient operation by the rest of the state because of the destruction to which the country has been subjected due to disruption in roads and communications systems. In that particular case, the Armed Forces also have that role, but this is an exception.

DIÁLOGO:
And with regard to humanitarian aid? I ask this because it can become a problem, as was the case in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake...

Capt. Soto:
One of the things we learned is that solidarity is very good and powerful. And it is appreciated. But uncontrolled and uncoordinated solidarity creates a bigger problem. We have learned that in Chile, because the Chilean people are supportive when there are natural disasters. And generally it is very rare that a disaster encompasses the whole country, because our country is 2,000 miles long. Therefore, if there is a disaster in an area, the rest of the country immediately cooperates to help the affected area. Then we learn that caravans are formed, sometimes hundreds of trucks, which arrive to the affected area with volunteers who are unprepared, whom we must feed, to whom we must deliver water, who must be coordinated, who must be vaccinated against tetanus so that they can cooperate. Therefore, these people, these efforts must be coordinated and must be controlled. If not, this will be a major problem. We have learned that in Chile and, somehow, this is about adjusting the efforts. The central and regional governments have a key role in that. And when we are in a state of exception, the head of the National Defense also has a key role.

DIÁLOGO:
And do you think that it would be a good idea to have a regional body that joins with various nations that could work, for example, in the area of distribution of humanitarian aid?

Capt. Soto:
There are regional bodies for that, and there is already a large effort being made. In 2008, during the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR, for its Spanish acronym) conference in Chile, Brazil proposed an initiative to advance in areas of coordination and pursuit of a common strategy to face this kind of problem. As such, we have the authority and dialogue already established since 2008. And there has been progress. One can judge whether progress is sufficient, or whether progress has been fast or slow, but there has been progress to the level and with the speed that the organizations themselves impose upon each other. What I think needs to be done is to empower organizations that already exist to achieve a greater regional response. And above all, I say it again, conversations and dialogue. Coordination between regional Armed Forces also already exists. And in that regard, there is coordination and learning. There's even an exercise that occurred in Chile in 2014, Partnership of the Americas, where representatives of various countries came together to train in how to deal with a natural disaster as Armed Forces. And it was a highly successful exercise. Therefore, there is coordination and mutual knowledge. It is vital to strengthen what we already have.

DIÁLOGO:
What is the role of the United States and SOUTHCOM in all this?

Capt. Soto:
The United States has always played an important role in this and obviously on the issue of capacities. It is a matter of experience. Clearly, the participation of the U.S. and the leadership that it can assume at the level of coordination of activities by other countries is appreciated and valued. The constructive attitude is valued. We also know that you have also learned a lot about dealing with natural disasters because, similarly to countries like mine, you have had your Katrina. The future is uncertain, but the fact is that there will be more earthquakes, and there will be more catastrophes. We always have to work together.
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