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