Valparaiso, the city I lived in the last year was burning last month. News of this fire was overshadowed by the crisis in Crimea in any bigger news outlet, so i had to resort to trying to read Chilenean newspapers on the web and bugging my friends who still live there. Seeing pictures of the destruction makes my heart ache.
It is estimated that around 3000 houses were destroyed, leaving 10.000 people without a home, shortly before the Chilean winter. Most affected were (as usual) the poor of the city. Chile does not have an extensive social security system as it is a strong follower of neo-liberalism. Valparaiso especially is lacking affordable housing, leaving a lot of the poorer population to illegally built houses in the ravines between the hills.
These houses do not only lack access to clean water and electricity (though often electricity is intercepted from the power lines) but are mostly built out of wood. They are not only fire traps, but also in danger of landslides due to the steep terrain.
The cause of the fire is thought to be a bird flying into a power line in the wood area above the city, but the fire spread rapidly through the ravines aided by strong winds.
Immediately after the fire public discussions turned to the ravines and the danger the illegal dwellings pose. The tragedy is blamed on the authorities letting "anyone" people built "anywhere" they want to. The fact that many of these people, who are now living in shelters or tents while the ravines are being cleaned up had been waiting for housing or housing vouchers for years is ignored.
As a municipal senator of the city put it: "We cannot just evict people, we need to find alternatives for them to live in."
Whether the fire is going to lead to a social change in a city where the students took to the streets last year for month to try and stop privatisation of education is questionable.
Fortunately people in Valpo do not wait for the government. As I have described before there is a strong sense of community in the city, best described by my friend who still was in Valpo at the time of the fire:
Thank you for checking in on us! We are all perfectly fine -- but the sad truth is that Valparaiso is not fine at all. This has been a devastating fire, and at times the city feels like a post-apocalyptic movie or something. It still goes as of today though it has reached the upper most part (mostly brushland).
It is a terribly SAD scene but at the same time, totally beautiful and inspiring the way the portenos have come together. I can't describe it. In the midst of so much heartbreaking sadness, there is such unity and selflessness. It's very heartwarming, and necessary in times like these to elevate the soul a bit by sights like this.
We went yesterday to donate a lot of things (some of your leftover stuff too, hehe) to the efforts. There are 'albergues' all over, for the thousands of displaced people to live as the disaster is contained, assessed, etc. We gave food, clothing, hygiene items, etc. Today Sam and I went to help out in another part of Valpo, by carrying things to shelters, donating cleaning products, etc. Most of the shelters have SO much stuff and are well installed for so little time having passed. Again, the organization and help available is just so impressive. There are even places receiving displaced pets and street animals. Equally as heartbreaking and lovely.
I know Valpo will recuperate. But it is so tremendously sad to think of the sheer quantity of people affected by this, that are now homeless....children, pregnant women, the poorest families, elderly people that have maybe never left the hills in years....