August 18, 2007 [LINK / comment]

Mourning and looting in Peru

The death toll from the earthquake in Peru now stands at about 540, not much higher than two days ago. That may be either a hopeful sign that fewer died than had been feared, or else an indication that authorities have simply not been able to count all the bodies. From the rubble of the San Clemente church in Ica, 127 bodies have been removed. It is winter in Peru right now, and even though it lies within the tropics, the cold Humboldt Current off the Pacific Coast keeps the air temperatures relatively cool. At night it can get very chilly, and many thousands of people are shivering while they try to sleep outside, either homeless or afraid to go back inside as the aftershocks continue. Out of sheer desperation, many people in Ica, Pisco, and smaller towns near the epicenter have begun looting stores, and police officers have fired warning shots. Hoping to stop the lawlessness, President Garcia promised that no one will go hungry or thirsty. Deliveries of relief supplies to the victims have been slow, however, mostly because of the badly damaged highways. At one spot along the Panamerican Highway, there is a three-feet high ledge along the fissure line, and it will take weeks or even months before normal traffic can resume. Because of the huge demand for transportation services, some truckers and bus drivers have been charging higher fares to passengers, which has created anger. All of Peru's neighboring countries have sent aid, as have Mexico, the United States, Canada, Spain, Italy and France. Garcia thanked the international community for the emergency assistance. See BBC and La Republica (in Spanish).

This will be the first major test of Alan Garcia's ability to cope with a high-pressure crisis since his second government began just over a year ago. In his first government, he did not measure up very well during a prison uprising. He also showed a tendency to promise more than he could deliver, and in a situation like this, any failures would be greatly magnified in the public's perception. There may still be some people buried alive, awaiting rescue. It's a lot like the tragic situation in the Utah coal mine, where three rescuers died trying to find the six trapped miners.