Communiqué: HKS Students Gain Insider Perspective of Chile’s Disaster Recovery Efforts

April 27, 2012
Communiqué: HKS Students Gain Insider Perspective of Chile’s Disaster Recovery Efforts
Destroyed adobe home in Cobquecura, Chile

By Kate Hoagland – Communiqué: Spring 2012, Volume 10

At 3:34 a.m. on February 27, 2010, Chile was hit with an 8.8 magnitude earthquake, the world’s sixth largest earthquake in recorded history. From its epicenter off the Pelluhue commune coast, the quake and subsequent tsunami damage spanned 600 kilometers from coastal to mountainous regions home to 80 percent of the country’s population. The disaster killed 562 residents and destroyed an estimated 370,000 homes, causing over $30 billion (US dollars) in widespread devastation and economic loss. Certain small villages and towns closest to the quake’s epicenter and along the coast experienced devastating losses: in Cobquecura and Dichato over 90 percent of residents lost their homes.

Two years later, the country is making impressive progress towards recovery. The government removed all disaster debris in a matter of months; by comparison New Orleans took upwards of three years to complete trash removal after Hurricane Katrina. Of the 80,000 temporary housing units known as mediaguas, 75,000 were built on residents’ actual land. Permanent housing for the homeless is well underway. According to the head of reconstruction for the Ministry of Housing, of the 220,000 families requiring government help to rebuild their homes scattered over 23,000 settlements, the government has allocated 220,000 subsidies, started constructing 136,237 permanent homes, and completed building 72,226 homes. The current administration has an ambitious goal of building the remaining permanent homes for all 220,000 families by February 2014.

While building homes and infrastructure requires master planning and cannot be done over night, many residents remain frustrated at the pace of reconstruction. And in smaller, rural villages like Perales destroyed by the tsunami, recovery efforts have been largely overlooked, abandoning residents to rebuild their homes and livelihoods on their own. Such arguably slow recovery efforts led in part to widespread protests that turned violent in July 2011 in the town of Dichato.

Community Recovery Immersion Course
Designed to give students a rare, insider’s view of the complex issues surrounding Chile’s recovery efforts, the “Community Recovery: Rebuilding Disaster Damaged Communities in Chile” course was held January 2nd through 14th at the beginning of this year. Created and taught by Doug Ahlers, adjunct lecturer in public policy at Harvard Kennedy School and a faculty affiliate of the Ash Center’s Program on Crisis Leadership, the course included a week of field work whereby teams of students lived and worked in Cobquecura, Dichato, and Perales, three quake- and tsunami-affected areas. Because these towns mirror the damage and devastation felt in other regions throughout Chile, Ahlers hopes the economic recovery strategies and plans created by the students can be adapted around the country as models for community-based recovery.

“Experiential learning courses like this one follow a ‘throw you into the deep end of the pool’ philosophy by really immersing our students in the communities they are studying to gain a better understanding of the complexity of the challenges faced,” said Ahlers. “Instead of getting a perfect problem set, they are getting a messy problem set, and from their toolbox of theories and frameworks, they must find ways to apply them in real time under real life pressures.”

Meeting with the families, community groups, foundations, and businesses hard hit by the disaster, students gained an on-the-ground understanding of each community’s day-to-day struggles. During the final week of the course, each team crafted a detailed strategic plan for improving the area’s economic growth in both the short- and long-term using the information they had learned doing field research.

A key component of the Community Recovery course was to help residents of Cobquecura, Dichato, and Perales identify promising public and private grants for individuals along with start-up and existing businesses. As the grant application process can be overwhelming for even the most seasoned professional and many residents were not familiar with the resources available to them, students offered one-on-one assistance with navigating the grant application process and facilitated with application writing so residents could best take advantage of available financial support.

Bringing Back Life to Once Popular Beach Town
Much of Dichato’s once vibrant coastline was destroyed by the tsunami, and the majority of this regional tourist hot spot’s population now lives in temporary housing camps. When residents lost their homes, they also lost an additional source of income, as many rented out their homes during the three-month tourist season.

Ruthzee Louijeune, HLS JD and HKS MPP 2014, and her fellow team members met with many of the town’s residents. She explained “the people of Dichato know best what their needs are – they’ve already identified them. Our primary objective was to listen to their ideas and help them strategically translate their vision to best gain access to resources and funds to start and rebuild their livelihoods.”

In one such interview, Louijeune met with 18 women all originally living in a temporary housing camp who, by hand, had built their own greenhouse of wood and plastic sheeting. Currently selling organic fruits and vegetables, the women hoped to become the town’s only flower vendor and take advantage of the built-in market promised by the nearby cemetery as well as the town’s many holiday festivals. Louijeune and her teammates aided them with crafting a business plan and applying for a start-up grant.

Building Out of Rubble
Also a tourist destination, Cobquecura attracts surfers from around the world to enjoy the town’s waves, miles of black sand coast line, and historic district. The quake transformed much of the classic adobe shops and homes of the downtown heritage area into piles of rubble. Other buildings are now uninhabitable with fallen-in roofs and toppled walls.

Because this town of 5,500 residents is relatively isolated – the nearest city is over an hour away – it has not been able to attract construction companies skilled in the adobe trade to aid in rebuilding efforts. José Ríos, MPA 2012, and his fellow HKS teammates proposed alternate building models including starting a local construction company trained in making seismic code-adobe and led by experts at the University of Peru and Harvard Graduate School of Design Lecturer Miho Mazereeuw, an expert in earthquake and tsunami-building techniques.

"This experience was very meaningful to all of us,” said Ríos, “but for me as a native Chilean, the class was very personal. It was an amazing opportunity to return to my country and try to help.”

Empowerment Through Sewing
Unlike Dichato and Cobquecura, the 500 residents of the small village of Perales live more modestly off subsistence farming, fishing, algae gathering, and tourism. In the peak season, the village had welcomed upwards of 400 visitors via its mountainous 25 kilometer coastal road—all but impossible now as the road was washed out by the tsunami. Instead, visitors can reach Perales by way of a new dirt road only paved at the steepest parts of its path. “The current road is very much like Highway One in California,” said Gina Di Domenico, HKS MPA 2013. “And while they’ve done preliminary work on it, our team recommended first and foremost that the road be rebuilt if Perales is to really grow in the future.”

While in Perales, Di Domenico and her fellow HKS teammates organized a workshop day for residents to share their ideas for reviving and improving their livelihoods. For Di Domenico, her most rewarding work was with a group of women seeking new ways to supplement their family income through hand-sewn clothes and handicrafts. As many residents suffered from post-traumatic depression after the disaster, the village’s local clinician started sewing classes as a creative coping mechanism. Taught in the clinic, 20 women learned the basics of sewing and could practice their skills one hour five times a month, sharing time on a single sewing machine. Di Domenico and her team aided the women in applying for a grant to secure 29 additional sewing machines to enhance their skills.

“Many of these women had an isolated existence as tourism has all but dried up in Perales,” said Di Domenico. “They were excited about the prospect of being able to supplement their family’s income and develop the skills to clothe their children better.”

This course is part of a larger effort of the Kennedy School to provide students immersive experiences to translate the skills they have learned in the classroom into practice. The Ash Center offers a host of travel and research grant opportunities through the Policy Analysis Exercise and summer internships. The Center’s Summer Fellowship in Innovation places students in the offices of some of the country’s most innovative municipalities to take part in key public policy initiatives and projects. Throughout the year, the Center also offers grants for students to research in the field. From exploring teacher retention in Pittsburgh to citizen receptiveness to new Dengue virus medicine in rural Indonesia, such research projects demonstrate a wide range of creative scholarship from across the globe.