Understanding urban resilience, part II: Concepción

Last week, we introduced the recently released City Resilience Framework, a tool developed by our International Development group and the Rockefeller Foundation to help demystify urban resilience.

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This week, we’re presenting the second case study to emerge from the project: the city of Concepción, Chile’s second-largest metropolis and a major industrial, commercial, and educational hub for the nation.

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The massive 8.8 earthquake and tsunami that hit Concepción’s metropolitan area on February 27, 2010 highlighted the critical importance of social resilience.

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Tower after the 2010 earthquake. Most of the structures that suffered serious damage were built prior to the adoption of modern building codes or found to have design or construction flaws

Despite the tremors’ magnitude, Chile’s building codes (and enforcement thereof) limited structural damage and loss of life. However, critical services — electricity, water, and sewerage networks — were disrupted, and transport came to a standstill.

One unexpected outcome of the disaster was the almost total breakdown of communication networks. Almost all internet, telephone, and radio services were cut off. Officials were unable to communicate with each other, obtain help from disaster management agencies in Santiago, or inform the public about what was happening.

Reports of food shortages, looting, and arson led to rumors of gangs stealing from homes. Widespread anxiety led to more looting. There were some bright spots, however. Neighbors demonstrated community cohesiveness by joining forces to protect one another, setting up shifts to keep watch after dark.

Boat washed up in the Concepción Harbor during the tsunami.

Boat washed up in the Concepción Harbor during the tsunami

The only communication network accessible throughout this period was Radio Bio Bio, which had invested in continuity planning and back-up systems prior to the earthquake. By providing the public with information about what was happening and enabling residents to communicate with one another, the station helped preserve some level of social stability.

Order was gradually restored only after the military arrived and a (popular) curfew was imposed.

Emergency drills in Concepción, 2013.

Emergency drills in Concepción, 2013

This experience taught Concepción that social stability and emergency communications were critical concerns for the future. The aftermath of the earthquake demonstrated all too clearly that the human damage brought on by disasters can be more challenging to repair than the physical infrastructure.

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