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Recipients of Caritas food aid in the Santa Clara township in Talcahuano. Talcahuano, Chile was devastated by the February 28th, 2010 earthquake and subsequent tsunami. Credits: Katie Orlinsky/Caritas

Recipients of Caritas food aid in the Santa Clara township in Talcahuano. Talcahuano, Chile was devastated by the February 28th, 2010 earthquake and subsequent tsunami.
Credits: Katie Orlinsky/Caritas

Ruben Sebulbeda hugs his little 18 month granddaughter Anina to his chest. Just like he did a week ago. When the earthquake struck Chile on Saturday, February 28th, in the dead of night, he woke up. Everything in his little house in the village of Santa Clara had fallen on the floor.

Ruben Sebulbda and his wife had just started to clean up, when they heard their neighbours running by and shouting: “The sea is coming!” By the time Mr Sebulbeda rushed out of his door, Anina in his arms, the wave, one and a half metres high, was already upon his house.

His wife was carried away by the flood, but he managed to grab her trailing hair and pulled her towards dry land. The sea took everything, not much is left of the little village. Most of the wood houses were torn apart by the tsunami and dragged along the road. The once picturesque coloured facades are now covered in brown mud.

Today Mr Sebulbda is living in a meeting room which belongs to the church of Santa Cecilia close to Concepción. Three families stay in the same room and sleep on mattresses on the floor. Ruben Sebulbeda brought his wife, little Anina and his son. His daughter is still in Talca, a four-hour drive away. She has not been able to come down to see her family, because of bad roads and curfews.

Altogether 15 families are staying at Santa Cecilia at the moment because they have got nowhere else to go. The priest who lives here normally receives food kits from Caritas, one kit will feed a family for two to three days.

Twenty to thirty volunteers, most of them students, gather here to go out to Santa Clara and other villages to deliver the food kits to families.

Monica Cartes, who lives, or rather lived, in Salinas, has just received one: “Well, this will help us a little”, she says. Together with her husband and her daughter they are just emptying the house. Everything is covered in mud and a strong fish stench hangs in the air.

“We basically need everything, towels, mattresses, plates – everything to run a household. But we do not even know if we want to stay here. It is too close to the sea. What if something like this happens again?”

At the moment, providing food for people in need is of priority: “So far we were able to hand out 25.000 food kits to families, comprising sugar, rice, tuna, tea, powdered milk and salt,” says Gabriela Gutierrez, Executive Secretary of Caritas Concepción.

Over 200,000 food kits have been donated by people all over Chile. For every kit donated, two large supermarket chains, Falabella y Tottus, donate an additional one.

Caritas volunteers in a huge warehouse in Santiago put the food into boxes and load them on trucks, which leave every day for Concepción and other regions to deliver the food to victims of the quake and the tsunami.

“We still do not have enough food to help everyone, there are a lot more who depend on us now,” says Gabriela Gutierrez.

Ruben Sebulbeda and his family are safe for now. They found a place to stay and they are fed. However, with 1.5 million people who have lost their homes all over Chile, not just food, but shelter will become the next big issue. The summer is gone, it is already pretty cold at night and many people are staying in tents and makeshift shelters.

One week on many of the streets have been cleared, field hospitals are up and running and the aid operation is in full flow. In the meantime, Caritas Chile is looking to the future and has already developed a prototype wooden house and plans to build 3000 plus in Talca alone based on assessments of 20,000 houses destroyed.