Exploring the earthquake and tsunami subculture in Greater Concepción, Chile: a cultural analysis of communities’ response to 27F

Engel, Karen E.


Chile is one of the most seismic countries in the world. On February 27, 2010, the south-central regions of Chile were hit by a powerful earthquake/ tsunami event (27F) that resulted in significant loss and devastation. Greater Concepción (GC) was one of the most affected regions. Impact showed that the communities of GC remain susceptible to these events. Communities facing recurrent hazards turn to sociocultural systems to accommodate these into their lives. Disasters reveal how successful communities have been at doing this, i.e. how effective they have been at adapting to their environs. They lay bare fundamental features of vulnerability that contributed to the unfolding of the disaster. The study underlying this thesis was designed with this in mind. The aim was to use a sociocultural lens specifically developed to look at disaster-related elements, i.e. the Disaster Subculture (DsC) lens, and investigate people’s 27F experiences to learn more about their earthquake/ tsunami vulnerability and resilience in GC. The DsC lens focuses on mechanisms that people cultivate to cope with recurrent hazards. While applying it, it was complemented with a technological culture perspective. This was important because adaptations emerge from the interface of the natural, social, and technical.

The DsC lens has its roots in the 1970s. Since then it’s conceptual development has been limited and it was mostly used by academics to refer or label disaster-related mechanisms that communities had developed to deal with recurrent hazards. It remains, however, the one conceptual framework that focusses on disaster-specific cultural assets. It was unclear however whether the lens would be fitting for this study. This is why the main study was preceded by one to ensure its appropriateness. The study had to establish that the lens still had contemporary relevance, could be applied outside the context it was developed in and could produce novel insights. This study investigated DsC in two communities in the Netherlands facing recurrent fluvial flood events: Borgharen and Itteren. On the basis of this study the DsC and technological culture perspective were developed.

Since both objectivist and constructivist approaches are characterized by dualities that cause tension when studying phenomena that emerge from the confluence of the natural, social, and material world, an approach inspired by critical realism was selected. Furthermore the research was qualitative and highly explorative. The former was fitting because central to the study are experiences and these cannot be measured. The latter was the case because at the time when the study was designed there were few studies looking into matters of vulnerability to earthquake/ tsunami events from a cultural perspective. The exploratory nature of this study guided the selection of ‘case-study’ as the strategy for inquiry. Data collection was done in ‘the field’ through ‘immersion’ of a period of over a year. Respondents were selected through purposeful sampling, mostly snowball sampling. The study included over 150 (formal) participants. Most interviews were individual semi-structures interviews. To go more in-depth into experiences interviews were complemented by a number of intensive prolonged interactions and participative processes. Often studies into vulnerability point out issues of sensitivity and susceptibility. Throughout this endeavor the focus was on what people have and can accomplish. What capacity of response for instance prevented them from absolute collapse? This was aided by the cultural approach I opted for.

The main study found that people in GC remain susceptible to earthquake/ tsunami disasters but that susceptibility differs throughout the region. This differentiation is influenced by people’s access to resources. For instance, a primary finding was that households typically considered resilient in the face of natural hazards were in fact not because of their limited access to relevant natural, financial, and cultural resources. Cultural resources, and especially disaster subcultural resources, are significant when it comes to disaster. Disaster subcultures encompass lessons learned from past disaster experiences aimed at positively influencing responses to future similar events. This study revealed that GC is characterized by a comprehensive and widespread earthquake disaster subculture which in coastal communities also includes tsunami-specific resources to limit loss of life. These resources allowed people to effectively deal with the earthquake. The tsunami-resources were however insufficiently accessible to all people exposed to the 2010 tsunami. People originally from inland localities who were now inhabiting tsunami exposed urban localities were for instance insufficiently aware of the tsunami risk they were exposed to. As a result, lives were loss. Also, the DsC did not include resources to prevent or mitigate material loss. Subsequently, material impact was significant and recovery because of this a more lengthy and complex process. Interestingly, an ‘after-action’ resilience analysis found that two localities from the same town (one rural and one urban one) that had suffered similar damage were very different in terms of resilience. A model inspired by Bellingham and Tanner’s (1995) resilience model was developed to assess the type of resilience that emerged in response to 27F stress by looking at the localities’ damage and responsiveness. This effort concluded that even though both localities suffered similar damage, their responsiveness was so different that one locality; the rural locality, could be defined as resilient while the other, the urban one, could not and seemed in fact susceptible.

In light of this a central finding is that exploring earthquake/ tsunami disaster subculture can enhance our understanding of vulnerability vis-à-vis earthquake/ tsunami events by directing our attention to the means that people cultivate to manage their vulnerability; to cultural capital. At the same time the technological culture approach to DsCs is key. There are important intricacies to be captured as disasters emerge from the confluence of human, social, technical and natural realms. DsCs emerge from highly technological learning processes, bringing together different bodies of knowledge, namely scientific, local and indigenous knowledge, to form one relevant earthquake/ tsunami disaster resource. Including this perspective is thus key to assure a rich picture and do justice to the role the social and the technological play when it comes to the vulnerability that people experience.

The findings are relevant to future disaster risk reduction efforts in GC. They showed existing capacities that should be taken into account when interventions to enhance disaster risk reduction are considered. Such efforts should build on available capacities. Also, the study revealed that GC’s DsC is comprehensive but that it contains elements that do not contribute to disaster risk reduction and seem in fact to do the contrary. Take the premise that civilians are the primary responsible for dealing with disaster preparation and response. This has led to poorly prepared governmental institutions that severely limit overall disaster resilience.

All in all, this study showed that (major) earthquake/ tsunami events remain serious threats for GC and that learning in order to improve adjustments and reduce these events’ disaster potential remains imperative.