A strong earthquake struck the southern Chilean region of Aysén, with its narrow fjords and steep slopes. The tremors caused an avalanche of mountain rock into the waters off the coast of Puerto Chacabuco and triggered a tsunami alert following the abrupt movement in the ocean floor. Faced with this emergency, units of the Chilean Navy deployed to evacuate the inhabitants of the port community.
Although the tsunami warning rang, the situation was a drill to prepare the community and local port companies to cope with giant, destructive waves. The Chilean Navy conducted the exercise in early September, with the cooperation of the Navy’s Hydrographic and Oceanographic Service (SHOA, in Spanish) and the Interior Ministry’s National Emergency Office (ONEMI, in Spanish), a government agency dedicated to preventing, coordinating, and managing natural disaster information. The evacuation exercise also focused on testing alert systems and coordination among emergency agencies, the local government, and the Navy.
Hundreds of people took part in the event, including units of the Navy’s Port Captaincy in Puerto Chacabuco, members of the local Emergency Operations Committee—under ONEMI—and SHOA members. More than 230 inhabitants of the community also joined the exercise and participated in evacuation plans.
The scenario consisted of the “consecutive avalanche of six hills into the sea within a specific area [7 miles north of Puerto Chacabuco] due to an earthquake, which would produce a significantly large wave that would hit the city,” Chilean Navy Lieutenant Commander Felipe Rodríguez, port captain at Puerto Chacabuco, told Diálogo. “We also defined the tsunami’s potential arrival time in Puerto Chacabuco.”
Once the warning was issued, the community mobilized and proceeded to a central gathering point in town with the support of Navy units. Together, inhabitants and service members made their way to a safe place uphill.
“We established a satellite communication point, and activated the Datamar2 network [a maritime network for coordination and emergency] to link the commands of SHOA’s National Tsunami Warning System and activate the tsunami alert module of Puerto Chacabuco,” Lt. Cmdr. Rodríguez said.
Managers of local businesses also followed action protocols and coordinated the information received with their workers, contributing to an organized and effective evacuation. Dozens of employees from three fish farms were able to abandon their duties and gather at the evacuation point. The Navy also succeeded in contacting 30 vessels and small boats near the danger zone, allowing them to evacuate under the directions of a Navy maritime unit.
Ready for contingency
Every year, SHOA plans and conducts training in different regions of the country, including three drills with personnel from ONEMI, the Navy, and other institutions. Exercises test the performance of personnel and the population in real-time for natural disaster situations.
“As ONEMI, we tackle the topic of tsunamis through different measures at the national and local levels,” Consuelo Cornejo, head of ONEMI’s National Civil Protection Academy, told Diálogo. The measures, she said, include training, courses, and conferences. “We did internships with SHOA for years. ONEMI officials were trained there, while SHOA officials were trained at ONEMI,” Cornejo added.
A simulation such as the one in Puerto Chacabuco takes several days of planning, including briefings with local organizations to communicate the objectives, activate protocols, and provide details of real and simulated actions. Navy and ONEMI representatives also deploy in the area to make contact with the population and give out information on the radio and in local schools.
“We worry a lot about people’s security in these events,” Lt. Cmdr. Rodríguez said. “We ensure that warnings don’t cause fear or accidents among the population upon hearing the siren.”
The Chilean coast is highly susceptible to tsunamis as Chile lies on the edge of the Nazca, Antarctic, and South American tectonic plates. The risk is a constant concern for the Navy, whose experts at SHOA are leaders in disaster prevention. The experts focus on developing tools and initiatives to improve prevention capabilities and face tsunami occurrences.
“The simulation was very important, because it helped reinforce communication among maritime and port authorities who take action on the coast in case a situation like this occurs,” Lt. Cmdr. Rodríguez concluded. “We can avoid [tragedies] if procedures are carried out properly.”