More earthquakes rock Chile as new president takes helm
SANTIAGO, Chile — The earth shook and shook yesterday as dignitaries walked in for the swearing-in of Sebastián Piñera as Chile’s president. It shook some more as they waited for him to join them.
People in the balconies of the vast congressional hall in coastal Valparaiso shouted warnings as a massive light fixture rocked overhead, and heads of state nervously eyed the ceiling. But a steely calm prevailed, especially from Piñera himself as he strode in smiling.
The president and his ministers then quickly swore their oaths, and the audience of 2,000 headed for the exits and the hills, joining an evacuation called out of concern that yesterday’s repeated aftershocks would set off another tsunami.
Inauguration Day in Chile was peppered with more than a dozen significant aftershocks that damaged some towns and sent thousands running for safety. The day amply demonstrated Piñera’s challenges in leading Chile’s recovery from last month’s magnitude-8.8 quake, one of the biggest in modern history.
Chile’s first elected right-wing president in 52 years won the office by promising to improve the economy. Now, he says he’ll be Chile’s “reconstruction president.’’ His advice to his citizens: “Let’s dry our tears and put our hands to work.’’
But relief efforts stalled yesterday as more than 10 earthquakes shook Chile in a span of six hours. The strongest, at 6.9, nearly matched the 7.0-magnitude quake that devastated Haiti on Jan. 12.
Piñera said that there were no reports of more deaths, but that Chile’s key north-south highway suffered more damage in the inland city of Rancagua. Violent waves hit at least two towns along the central Chilean coast, Pichilemu and Bucalemu, according to Interior Minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter.
The area around the congress building had already been evacuated when Piñera’s half-hour inauguration finished and the announcer urged the audience to empty the building.
In his first remarks as president, Piñera urged citizens to also heed the Chilean Navy’s tsunami warning and seek higher ground. Then he made a show of normality, greeting other presidents for a shortened lunch at the Cerro Castillo summer palace before boarding a helicopter for disaster areas to the south.
Piñera called on Chileans to dedicate themselves to “this colossal job of reconstructing our country, of rebuilding better than what we had before, not just to lift up our schools, our hospitals, our homes, but also to make them better, and also to lift up the soul of our country.’’