SANTIAGO – Many Chileans received a blaring alert on their mobile phone on Saturday evening. People were directed to leave the coastal areas. Within an hour, authorities came forward and explained the alert was a mistake: only Antarctica was supposed to have received it.
For many Chileans, tsunamis are no joke. The 2010 earthquake brought destruction, but in many coastal towns it was the subsequent tsunami that really lifted the death toll, causing a national trauma. It was no surprise that especially in those coastal towns, such as La Serena, people panicked on Saturday night, Jan. 23, after receiving an alert to evacuate as soon as possible.
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The reason behind the alert was a 7.1 earthquake centered near Antarctica. Those living in the polar zone, a few military personnel and scientists, had to evacuate. So why was the alert sent countrywide? Why generate national panic in a time when stress is a constant factor already? According to Ricardo Toro, the director of the National Emergency Office (Onemi) the error was in the codes that represent the Chilean municipalities.
The alert system has two locations with the same code: Alto Hospicio, in the northern region of Tarapacá, and Antarctica. While the earthquake in Antarctica triggered a tsunami alert in the extreme south, the system recognized it as a tsunami alert in the Chilean north, thus the entire coast, as well.
Another question that arose is why some people did not receive the alert. The matter is still being investigated: some people point to the mobile phones, themselves: if bought abroad, they might not receive an alert.
And yet another question is why the alert to “abandon” beach areas was coupled with a confusing reference to Covid-19 but no reference to tsunamis:
Alerta de Emergencia
Estado de precaucion. ONEMI establece abandonar zona de playa. Distanciese por COVID-19.
So how does this alert system work?
The Emergency Alert System (SAE) is designed to alert Chilean residents of possible national emergencies. It is primarily used after earthquakes, when there exists a possibility of a tsunami, or during volcanic eruptions and forest fires. The idea behind the system is to give people time to prepare and evacuate.
It is an automatic system that sends alerts to all phones in a certain area. People receive the alert immediately on their screen through a pop-up window, with the date, time, and 90 characters of text. The system is connected to Onemi´s monitors, which use national and international systems for monitoring possible disasters. According to Onemi´s director Ricardo Toro, the system has been used at least 50 times successfully over the last seven years. Nevertheless, after last Saturday’s error, everything will be revised.
Editor-In-Chief Boris van der Spek is the founder of Chile Today. He worked in Colombia, Surinam and the Netherlands as reporter and works with international media during major events, like the social crisis, the elections and the Pope’s visit.