International Strategy for Disaster Reduction
Latin America and the Caribbean   

Newsletter ISDR Inform - Latin America and the Caribbean
Issue: 13/2006- 12/2006 - 11/2005 - 10/2005 - 9/2004 - 8/2003 - 7/2003 - 6/2002 - 5/2002 - 4/2001- 3/2001

Disaster in the Region


Earthquake in Southern Peru:
A Test To Local And National Capacity

Written by Luis René Vallenas,
Member of the National Education and Training Management Unit of INDECI
Former Executive Director of the Mobilization - Operations Department of INDECI
Consultant, Emergencies and Disasters - Member of the UNDAC- LA Team.

Once again, our country was put to an enormous test, which showed the level of preparedness of national, regional and local authorities, as well as the population at large. This occurred during the last seism that took place on June 23, 2001 in the vast southern region of Peru, comprising the Departments of Arequipa, Moquegua and Tacna, as well as the provinces of Paucar del Sara and Lucanas, Department of Ayacucho. According to the records of the Geo-Physical Institute of Peru, the magnitude at the epicenter was 6.9 degrees, with geographical coordinates of 16.20 latitude, 73.75 longitude and 33 kilometers of depth, located next to the city of Ocoña on the coast, in the Department of Arequipa. As a result of this seism, a tsunami took place, which significantly affected the towns of Ocoña, Camaná, Quilca and Matarani, located along the southern coast of Peru. This tsunami penetrated more than a kilometer in the Valley of Camaná, causing damages and death. To the north of Ocoña and to the south of Matarani, the height reached by this tsunami did not exceed the high tide level. It is worth mentioning that the tsunami hit the coast while the tide was low. According to the data provided by the Hydrology and Navigation Management Unit of the Peruvian Navy, its trans-oceanic propagation was registered on tidegraphs in Hawaii, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Chile, reaching heights of 5 to 20 cms.

Different institutions of the National System for Civil Defense stated that damage assessment was a hard task to carry out, due to both the extension of the affected zone and how complicated it was to access some rural zones. This situation worsened because tele-communications were cut off in a number of cities, at least during the first couple of days following the event. Ninety days after the occurrence of the earthquake, this assessment calculated approximately 219,420 victims, 83 deaths and 57,774 houses destroyed or at least damaged.

Along these lines, the most significant consequence of this earthquake was the destruction of houses -mostly built with adobe, since approximately 80% of this type of construction was destroyed or severely damaged. In a similar manner, roads had crevices and were temporarily blocked due to landslides from the hills. This caused the isolation of some communities. Power supply was disrupted in many of these cities, and was reestablished only after proving that there existed no risk for the population. The disruption of basic services during the first couple of days, added another element to this already dramatic and devastating situation, which could only be described by those who experienced the lack of such essential services.

Victims in the Southern Region of Peru

Only a couple of hours after the occurrence of this seism, the president of the Republic of Peru, Dr. Valentín Paniagua, visited the zone affected by it. He established emergency measures and created, jointly with the main national ministries, the Executive Committee for Emergencies, allocating economic resources to provide aid to the victims. Due to the magnitude of this event and the damage caused by it, a National Committee for the Restoration of the Affected Zones was created as well. The president of the Council of Ministries was appointed as the official in charge of coordinating actions and setting priorities in order to advance the restoration of infrastructure and services within those provinces affected by this earthquake.

UNDAC teams (United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination), as well as the SUMA Andean Team, were dispatched. Their actions were strengthened by the presence of assessment experts and the coordination of search and rescue operations. Through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Department of Civil Defense and a number of diplomatic missions, all these teams worked jointly and contributed to the work done by local and national authorities. For instance, different teams arrived in Peru only a few hours after this event, and coordinated most of their field activities with the Department of Civil Defense. Some 10 different teams made up of specialists from the UN, PAHO, UNICEF, PMA, FAO, the International Federation of Red Cross, OFDA, and the Swiss Rescue Body, among others, supported the initial process required to identify needs, established cooperation mechanisms and articulated local and regional community participation.

After the occurrence of this event, the National Institute for Civil Defense (INDECI) has given more importance to both community participation during the response stage and to disaster mitigation. Decentralized bodies (i.e. Regional Management Units for Civil Defense) have based their work on strategies for local organization and participation, recognizing that this social element is crucial to reduce vulnerability and improve responses before and after an emergency arises. Particularly, Committees for Civil Defense, headed by the mayors, as well as community participation, are essential to organize local communities towards the reduction of vulnerability and the optimal use of human and financial local resources. It is worth mentioning that, in order to empower a community to organize itself in the face of emergencies and disasters, information, planning, participation and ongoing work are required.

Some reflections regarding this emergency enable us to state that these are critical tests to our logistical and organizational capacity, especially when distributions systems have collapsed and roads have been blocked. In this context, it must be taken into consideration that the distribution of supplies by air is very expensive. However, the need to help victims made us use all available means, without neglecting the main activities aimed at supporting the least developed populations. The challenge of our authorities increased within a number of social sectors, where deficiencies in supply management brought about complicated consequences. For this reason, the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) provided us with technical support and dispatched a professional team in order to implement SUMA. This facilitated the distribution of supplies from other parts of the country and from international cooperation, by air and sea. It is worth mentioning that logistics without the appropriate infrastructure or the human resources required, could become a very complex process that should not depend on improvisation or last-minute decisions.

After this earthquake, regional and local responses included a number of initial tasks. This represented the mobilization of volunteers from a number of institutions such as the Red Cross, Civil Defense, churches, fire fighters and ADRA, among others, who initially worked for almost twenty hours a day. The effort and enthusiasm showed by these young volunteers make us commit ourselves to similar tasks both in the present and the future. Their silent and anonymous devotion was confirmed by the unfortunate death of our friend Filomeno Coloma, whose helicopter crashed when he was on his way to helping isolated populations. Due to a mechanical failure, his helicopter hit the ground, causing also the death of the co-pilot, the sub-prefect and security staff.

Technological advances and the need to broadcast information to the international community regarding the consequences and the way events were evolving, led to the need to strengthening information services via Internet. This communication means was a very important tool used by both the central government and decentralized bodies. The website was visited by humanitarian agencies, multilateral organizations, donor countries and the media at large. These and other bodies, as well as a number of individuals, had the opportunity to express their solidarity through this website, especially to the population affected, due to the great number of deaths and material losses. This website also served as a means to offer help and coordinate actions to meet the basic needs of this population. It was due to all these efforts made by different institutions to provide reliable technical information, that we could learn valuable lessons regarding the need to organize and open spaces via Internet to exchange opinions and facilitate decision-making processes when facing a crisis.

Houses Damaged by the Earthquake in Peru


The outcomes with regards to preparedness activities, carried out through drills and exercises, allowed us to observe how some fishery communities, located along the coast, were knowledgeable about the possibility of a tsunami caused by the earthquake. It is important to state that, even when the population is prepared to face a tsunami, information about its consequences must be broadly disseminated. In this context, the bodies titled “Squads for Mental Health”, mobilized from the Capital city of Lima, carried out a number of actions to reduce post-psychological trauma, especially among women and children. It was necessary to strengthen these actions as part of the process of assistance and relief to the victims.

These experiences -regarding the development of a culture of prevention through the Program for Disaster Mitigation of the UN Department for Humanitarian Affairs and INDECI (1992-1995), have shown the importance of devoting joint efforts of local and regional authorities, and scientific and academic institutions, to incorporating prevention measures and being prepared to cope with similar events.

Construction systems within the affected area, as well as the growth of those cities experiencing the consequences of earthquakes in the southern region, must be planned and improved, in order to optimize land use, build houses in safer places with low-cost but good-quality material, and include the knowledge available about earthquake resistant designs.

After an event of such magnitude -the earthquake occurred in the southern region of Peru, institutions of the National System for Civil Defense must assess and recognize their deficiencies in terms of coordination and preparedness. We believe that there is still much that needs to be done in order to be fully prepared. Actions carried out and lessons learned may serve as a valuable experience for other countries to strengthen their programs for disaster prevention and mitigation. Our country will continue to endure other earthquakes and tsunamis, but our level of vulnerability may be reduced if individuals, parents, local leaders and authorities, as well as Committees for Civil Defense commit to prepare themselves regarding this type of events. We must take advantage of our experiences and overcome our own limitations and deficiencies.