As rescue dogs combed the fetid coastline, where emergency personnel believe monster waves swept hundreds to their deaths, the government said three days of mourning would be observed from Sunday in honour of the quake victims.
The official death toll stands at 802, but President Michelle Bachelet, touring the heart of the disaster zone for the first time five days after the quake, said it could include some 200 people that should be listed as missing.
Bachelet, who called for the national flag to be hung from each house during the mourning period, predicted it could take up to four years for the South American nation to fully recover from its worst quake in half a century.
The stench of death was everywhere as Bachelet arrived in the country’s hard-hit second city Concepcion to inspect the massive aid operation struggling to get food and water to the ravaged areas.
“This is testing us as a nation once again. Chile will get back on its feet. What has happened to us is terrible, of colossal dimensions,” Bachelet said, as she talked with relief workers.
Thousands of Chilean troops sent to the devastated central and southern regions have largely managed to quell the looting that erupted in the wake of Saturday’s 8.8-magnitude quake and ensuing tsunami.
In the small coastal town of Constitucion, vans, cars and small trucks flying the Chilean flag sped around loaded with supplies.
False tsunami alert
“Restoring order and feeding the hungry are our top priority,” said Laura Abornoz, Bachelet’s special envoy in the low-lying coastal area, where more and more people were fleeing for higher ground despite government reassurances.
“I want to go home, but my little girls won’t go back,” said Andrea Luna Casanova, with her two young daughters by her side.
“They cry whenever we mention it. They were terrified by the quake. We live on the seventh floor and it just shook and shook.”
A false tsunami alert on Wednesday sent terrified people scrambling for the hills and regular aftershocks as well as a separate 6.3-magnitude quake late on Thursday ensured nerves were constantly rattled.
Bachelet, who steps down on March 11, has deployed 14 000 troops and imposed curfews in the devastated region, an unprecedented move since the 17-year military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet which ended only in 1990.
She will be replaced by president-elect Sebastian Pinera, who now inherits the huge task of rebuilding the South American country.
“We will not be the government of the earthquake, but the government of reconstruction,” the multimillionaire businessman vowed a week before his inauguration.
Despite being considered a model of political and economic stability in Latin America, Chile has struggled to cope with catastrophe of this scale.
Many of the nation’s lifeline industries, from agriculture and fishing to tourism and trade, were decimated by the disaster.
Tons of aid is beginning to arrive, and the international airport in Santiago which was damaged in the quake – one of the largest ever recorded – has now reopened.
International credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s was positive about Chile’s long-term recovery prospects and issued a statement saying it was leaving its 2010 growth forecast unchanged at 5%.
“While we expect a significant hit to growth – and to the recovery already under way – in the first half of the year, extensive reconstruction efforts are likely to bolster economic activity thereafter.”
The International Monetary Fund also predicted that the Chilean economy would continue to rebound after contracting in 2009 due to the global economic crisis.
“The big impact is the immediate humanitarian and social cost,” said IMF spokeswoman Caroline Atkinson.
Total economic losses from the quake could exceed $15bn, according to EQECAT and AIR Worldwide, two firms which model the impact of disasters.
Meanwhile, Pope Benedict XVI sent a message to Chileans, 70% of whom are Roman Catholic, saying he hoped the disaster “would inspire in everyone feelings of Christian hope and fraternal solidarity to overcome adversity.”
And UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was due to arrive in Chile late on Thursday ahead of meetings the following day. SAPA