Jonathan Franklin and Jeffrey Smith report from Santiago:
While the death toll rose steadily to more than 700, according to a midday estimate, it remained a small fraction of the tally from a far less powerful earthquake last month in Haiti that claimed at least 220,000 lives. That temblor was more shallow and much closer to a large population center, the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince. But the deaths there were mostly because of widespread building collapses, which Chilean cities did not experience.
Earthquake scientists, building engineers and political scientists in Chile and the United States agreed that even though half a million homes were heavily damaged during more than 120 seconds of shaking, the fact that so many Chileans survived was a testament to the nation’s enactment and enforcement of stringent building codes.
You often see people from the political right promoting the view that even when the case for public sector intervention is sound in the abstract, it nonetheless shouldn’t be done because it’s impossible to make public institutions work well (see Hirschman’s The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy) but the fact of the matter is that quality of performance varies a great deal and the variation is extremely important. Effective and well-enforced building codes in an earthquake zone can save many lives, and the same is true across an extremely wide swathe of public activities.