Religious groups rebuild Chile


[Ver en español.] Santiago -- No one in Chile doubts that the number of dead from the earthquake of February 27 will continue rising. Officially, the number sits at 711, but there are thousands still missing and hundreds of coastal villages that were demolished by the tsunami the quake spawned.

Chile is an especially 'seismic' country. Of the 10 largest earthquakes ever recorded, three, including this latest disaster, have pounded this land. The largest earthquake ever recorded, in 1960, changed the very geography of the Chile's south-central region, with the sea pushing inland and hills collapsing into the valleys.

Even as television news deluges viewers with tragic images and stories of those who have lost everything, or of yet another miraculous rescue, the government is attempting to organize a national reconstruction.

But it's the churches who have gotten out ahead of everyone.

The Catholic Church has created in Chile an enterprise called Christ House, which is a broad network of ready-to-go emergency housing. The network includes homes for invalids, housing for children, and even funeral homes. In the supermarkets, they've achieved a monopoly on the loose change that people don't want to bother carrying home. That loose change has generated millions in revenue. Christ House is already one of the main channels for early assistance to quake victims.

Another early responder is an organization created 15 years ago by a group of college students. It's called A Roof for Chile, and its purpose is to end the need for the so called "encampments", which are really just homes of cardboard and leftover sheet metal that people set up wherever there is an unclaimed bit of land.

A Roof for Chile's volunteers are already working in the disaster zone.

Evangelical Christians aren't far behind, however. On March 3, a meeting of the General Counsel, the largest evangelical organization in Chile, will bring together Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists and Anglicans to ensure they are not duplicating efforts. Each denomination has also already mobilized resources to help their own members.

NGOs, such as World Vision, have stepped in as well. The United States and all countries in the region have promised their aid. The complexity is how best to channel that aid.

On March 11, Chile will observe a change of powers and the president elect, rightist Sebastián Piñera, will assume leadership. Many of the current government's functionaries had already packed up their offices when the earthquake occurred. Piñero asked key governmental leaders to stay on in their posts for some time in order to ensure there is no wasted efforts in the transition and disaster response.

Although there are no official damage evaluations at this point, it is estimated that the reconstruction will cost at least 30 billion dollars.

Much of the country, of course, is fully functional. The south was hit the hardest. Santiago and the north, meanwhile, are going about their business. Highways are passable, though at slow speeds. Communicating is difficult, but it is possible.

And one more time, Chile must rebuild.

[Photo from Flickr user "James Guppy".]