Clinton brings phones, promises to quake-hit Chile
SANTIAGO, Chile – U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made a small dent in Chile’s growing needs following a massive earthquake, handing over 25 satellite phones Tuesday while promising more in the country’s capital.
«We stand ready to help in any way that the government of Chile asks us to. We want to help Chile who has done so much to help others,» Clinton said during a brief visit that took her nowhere near areas with heavy damage. She spent most of her time at an undamaged area of the airport.
Clinton toured an area of the airport where tea, flour and other supplies were being loaded into boxes for shipment to parts of the country where supplies are short.
Meeting with the country’s president-elect, Clinton said she is sure Chile is handling the disaster well. «There is no doubt in my mind, as we stand here at an airport that thankfully is functioning and relief flights are coming in, that Chile is prepared, is dealing with this massive disaster and will be on the road to an even better recovery in the future,» she said.
Clinton said there has been no discussion of sending U.S. troops to help distribute aid or keep order, as was done in Haiti following the far more deadly earthquake there in January.
She gave one of the donated phones directly to current President Michelle Bachelet, who had said shortly after Saturday’s predawn quake that her country did not need much help from other nations. That changed as the magnitude of the disaster became clear — power, water, food and medical care are urgent needs in the country’s second-largest city, Concepcion, and along a coast hit by both the quake and a resulting tsunami.
The United States has pledged additional help, including a field hospital with surgical facilities that Clinton said is «ready to go.»
The United States is sending more satellite phones, which work in areas where land lines and cell phone towers are out of commission. Chile identified the phones as a high priority, Clinton said.
Also on the way are eight water purification systems, generators, medical equipment and supplies. Other donations could include mobile kitchens, temporary bridges and helicopters. The amount of such aid will depend on what Chile requests, Clinton said.
If the initial U.S. donation seems small, U.S. officials say it is in part a reflection of Chile’s initial reluctance to ask for more. U.S. officials said Chile would not have to repay any U.S. assistance. Officials could not offer specifics as to when the additional U.S. aid would arrive.
Chile’s neighbors have already acted.
Argentina on Monday flew in an Air Force C-130 with much of a hospital — including a surgical and intensive care unit, ambulance and laboratory — three water treatment plants and power generation units, the military announced.
Five other planeloads of aid were supposed to arrive by Tuesday night.
Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva visited Chile on Monday. He said a first planeload of aid would arrive Tuesday, followed later by a full army field hospital.
Peru said it was sending a mobile hospital and doctors with 15 tons of blankets and tents.
U.S. officials said they made clear to Chilean government officials soon after the quake that Washington was prepared to assist, but they also said privately that they were careful not to presuppose that Chile would want outside help or to give the impression of underestimating Chile’s disaster preparedness.
Paul Simons, the U.S. ambassador in Santiago, told reporters at the State Department on Monday that the Chilean government had made it known on Sunday that it was prepared to accept foreign help.
Simons said the embassy is in touch with the foreign ministry in Santiago «on a continuous basis to see what exactly it is that Chile needs and to match that up with some of the resources that we have available.»
Bachelet’s recent requests for outside help come amid rising criticism that her government has been slow to reach with its own resources and slow to ask others to step in. Bachelet has said her government needed time to determine where the needs were greatest.
«We have these things in our country, but how can we get them to the people if we don’t have bridges and roads?» said Bachelet, who is nearing the end of her term in office.
Distribution of supplies is being done, Bachelet added, but «we need to do it very fast and get it to the remotest corners of the country and get it there soon.»
Lawlessness and hunger are on the rise. The central government was forced to send thousands of troops to guard against looting and other crime in Concepcion.
Bachelet said it is impossible to know the extent of damage now, but that one estimate is that it will cost $30 billion to rebuild.
With 2 million people affected and 500,000 homes damaged, «I can only say it will be a lot,» Bachelet said.
President-elect Sebastian Pinera said the disaster has not canceled his plans for economic expansion. He did not directly criticize the current government for what others have called a slow response.
«This is not the time to cast blame or say that anything has been done wrong,» Pinera said. «This is a time to provide solutions.»