ABU DHABI // While Chileans slept in the aftermath of the seventh-worst earthquake ever recorded, phones at the country's embassy in the Emirates lit up with anxious queries yesterday. Dozens of expatriates rang throughout the day to ask about contacting relatives, friends and colleagues back home, where downed power lines blacked out communications.
Yanette Letelier, 33 and an Abu Dhabi resident, was among those waiting on edge for news. Her home village of Putu lies just 77km from the epicentre of the quake. "I was waiting for them to call but there was no electricity and I know my family is near to the epicentre," she said. The 8.8-magnitude quake destroyed her younger brother's home in the village of 1,600 people. But he was able to call Mrs Letelier to let her know their parents and 11 aunts were fine.
"I am so sorry for the people there because I know them," said Mrs Letelier, who moved with her husband to the UAE three years ago. "Putu is a small town and there are very old houses. The construction was maybe 60 or 80 years ago. Even the church and bell tower went down." She said she heard from Chilean news sites that six people had died in Putu. "I knew those people who died," she said. "One was a 15-year-old boy. Now I'm afraid for the old people, because some very old people last night were sleeping in the mountains. My neighbour is 96 years old; I don't know where she's sleeping now."
Despite the property damage, Mrs Letelier was grateful to discover her loved ones were safe. "My brother lost his house, but he said OK, he can work hard to have that again. At least we have the lives of my family." The Government has offered to help. On Saturday night, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, phoned the Chilean ambassador, Jean-Paul Tarud, to express his condolences and to offer aid.
"It was a very kind call for any help they can provide," Mr Tarud said yesterday. The Dominican and Argentinian embassies have also reached out. Mr Tarud was able to get in touch with his family in Santiago through the internet. "Although Santiago was also hit pretty badly, fortunately the infrastructure was able to survive that impact," he said. "We're getting so many calls, especially from people with relatives in the city of Concepcion, where telecommunications still haven't been restored. This isn't just people from the Chilean community, but also people who do business there, who have friends who have been calling to find out how things are."
Property damage was limited due to modern structural reinforcement engineering in the cities following previous scares in the earthquake-prone Pacific Rim. "Construction engineers basically made the infrastructure able to survive earthquakes," he said. "Still, the casualties we've had have been extremely sad." As of yesterday, there were no UAE nationals reported present in Chile during the earthquake, the embassy said.
Roughly 180 Chileans call the Emirates home, according to the embassy, which opened last October. Marco Martinez, the consul of Chile, continued to phone members of the community yesterday to provide updates. His own family in Santiago e-mailed him minutes after the quake struck at 3.34am local time Saturday to tell him they were fine. "My brother and father are together now and they passed the night together," Mr Martinez said.
He was not yet certain what kind of aid the UAE would provide, but the offer was reassuring. "We don't know what is needed at the moment," he said. "It could be medicine, it could be anything. But just the phone call for us is very important for letting us know we have this support locally during this tragedy." Ismiel Correa, an architect in Abu Dhabi, kept in regular contact with Mr Martinez for news on the situation in Concepcion.
"Some friends of mine are working in Concepcion, but thank goodness that we heard in the morning that [they are] OK," said Mr Correa, 33, from Santiago. Ovidio de Ferrari, who runs a music institute in Dubai, was relieved to hear his adult daughter and son were unharmed in the capital. "It was very confusing, but I used Facebook to contact some friends," he said. The family gathered at one home in the middle of the night to be together through the aftershocks, but he fretted over the fates of others.
"I'm so worried for the people of Concepcion because they were devastated," he said. Mr de Ferrari, 54 and born in the northern Chilean port of Arica, has lived in Dubai for 16 years. He noted that although the Chilean community in the Emirates is small, its members are close. "We had a barbecue last night and we got together, many of us, to try to get some news among the community, to help each other," he said. "We all know each other over here."
The embassy has advised those trying to locate their kin to use Google's "person finder" tool. The tool is at www.chilepersonfinder.appspot.com. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org