Inventing institutions to deal with disasters

Catastrophes are nothing new to Chileans. Historically society and the state have both found creative ways of responding to the successive earthquakes in the 20th century.


The Chilean columnist Joaquín Edwards Bello (1887-1968) said that “earthquakes restore all people to their true value.” These catastrophes reveal our most hidden flaws and provide a chance to find creative solutions. In Chile each one of the great earthquakes of modern times has been accompanied by an important institutional development.

The Seismological Service was created after the 1906 Valparaiso earthquake, locating its first station on Cerro Santa Lucía, in downtown Santiago. Its first director was the French expert Fernand de Montessus de Ballore, who was hired by the government and pioneered this discipline in the country.

After the Talca earthquake of 1928 the Carlos Ibáñez government reacted with a bill to regulate the seismic design of buildings, which entered into effect as part of the General Construction and Urbanism Ordinance in 1935. In this way, Chile followed the course that was being charted by the United States, Japan, and New Zealand, thus joining the group of countries with highest level of development in anti-seismic techniques, meaning that new buildings were better prepared to withstand disasters. Anti-seismic standards have gradually been improved in line with international standards and proved their effectiveness in the 1985 and 2010 earthquakes.

After the earthquake in Chillán in 1939 President Pedro Aguirre Cerda created the Production Development Corporation (Corfo), which operated as an institutional space to foster cooperation between the public and private sectors. The idea was to promote the foundations for industrial development, which required a major joint effort. The Chillán earthquake and the 30,000 deaths it caused provided the dramatic opportunity to create this decisive institution.

After the mega-earthquake in Valdivia in 1960, the Jorge Alessandri administration renamed the Economy and Development Ministry the Economy, Development and Reconstruction Ministry, thus assigning it a permanent role in the Chile of major natural disasters.

The National Telecommunications Company (Entel) was created on this foundation and with the conviction that affected areas should never again be isolated, though it was privatized during the military regime and thus lost its founding objective.

After the earthquake in the central region in 1965, President Eduardo Frei Montalva created the National Emergy Office (Onemi). Other positive effects of this earthquake included the creation of the presidential power to decree a “disaster area” to speed up assistance for communities. In addition, the legal standards regarding “presumed death” were regulated and the concept of “victim” was defined.

The Santiago Development Corporation was created after the earthquake that hit the central region in 1985, which damaged many old buildings in the capital in particular. It was a private institution whose main concern was the revitalization and repopulation of the capital’s urban center, which had been in decline for many years. In 1986 the process to improve seismic insulation techniques began and the changes were applied as a standard in Chile in 2008.

This country has always been proud of its institutions. Venezuelan writer Mariano Picón Salas coined the phrase: “Chile, or the aspiration for order.” For his part, Uruguayan writer José Enrique Rodó had already recognized a century ago that one of the characteristics of this people is a “will to build, to organize, to legislate, to govern.” The inhabitants of this territory are destined to suffer regular attacks from nature that destroy and mess everything up. Throughout history the institutional responses that these episodes have elicited are evidence of that aspiration – projected institutionally – over time to put in order whatever could be messed up at any moment.

What institutional structure will emerge from the earthquake and tsunamis this fated 2010? We do not yet know the answer, but the radical challenges we are faced with during these days and weeks will doubtlessly prompt decisions to be made that will have a great impact on the future.