Chile Earthquake Takes Heavy Toll on Historical Sites

Article excerpt

For many the Chile earthquake is over. Not for Oscar Acuna, who is racing the clock to save historical sites from demolition and further disrepair.

When the massive magnitude-8.8 quake that rocked Chile on Feb. 27 reduced dozens of the country's oldest historical sites to rubble, Oscar Acuna wasted no time before dispatching teams of architects and archaeologists to assess the damage. In the capital, Santiago, the quake damaged a handful of churches and buildings in the historic districts. But in the traditional towns nearest the epicenter none was spared.

Initial assessments of 241 damaged sites include the San Salvador Basilica in Santiago and the World Heritage sites of La Matriz Church and the Port marketplace, both in the coastal city of Valparaiso.

The most extensive damage, however, occurred in the south- central regions of Maule, O'Higgins, and Biobio, where many adobe homes were destroyed.

IN PICTURES: Rebuilding after an earthquake

Mr. Acuna, executive secretary of Chile's National Monuments Council (NMC), now finds himself in a race against the clock to prevent demolition crews from erasing what remains of these culturally important sites.

"This is not the time to be hasty," Acuna says. "We're asking communities to pause before they demolish these buildings because once they're gone, the loss is total."

The Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti also destroyed many well-known symbols of the island nation's cultural heritage, such as the National Palace and the Holy Trinity Cathedral. The United Nations and other international groups are evaluating the damage to develop a strategy for preserving such sites, while in Chile the government itself is taking the lead role.

The NMC and the National Center of Conservation and Restoration are overseeing the damage assessment in collaboration with religious and historical organizations, architects, and architectural students. Where the NMC's focus is primarily on the edifice, the conservation and restoration center is concerned with the altars and other objects often as significant as the buildings themselves.

Big impact on religious sites

The earthquake was especially costly for the religious community. Nearly 3 out of every 4 cultural patrimony buildings damaged belong to the Roman Catholic Church, according to Maria Elena Troncoso Delpiano, executive secretary of the National Commission of Cultural Property of the Church. "Building in Chile is generally an optimistic endeavor because sooner or later we all know another quake is imminent," Ms. Troncoso says. "We've built beautiful things, but we aren't prepared to conserve them."

Scores of 100-year-old churches and chapels crumbled, while hundreds of aftershocks continue to shake the ground in Chile, finishing the job of ruining partially damaged structures.

The quake exposed longstanding neglect, especially of religious monuments, Troncoso adds. But as far as she is concerned, everything is repairable, and the commission has been working with priests to inventory church losses. …