Chileans begin earthquake cleanup

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TOCOPILLA, Chile, Nov 17 (Reuters) Many in Tocopilla thought the world was ending on Wednesday when a powerful earthquake jolted the seaside city. Now they realize their problems were just beginning.

Yesterday, all around the small seaside city they were digging out of the rubble, starting the rebuilding of lives that changed dramatically when the 7.7 magnitude quake struck at midday in Chile's stark Atacama Desert.

The streets were lined with trash as people cleaned their homes of fallen plaster, broken glass and shattered wood. Many pitched tents on the sidewalks, preferring to sleep outside as aftershocks kept everyone on edge.

''You can't sleep here in peace,'' said Ivonne Pineda Ramos as she showed a visitor her shattered home, where walls had gaping holes and the ceiling threatened to collapse.

In her middle-class neighborhood, called ''O'Higgins'' after Chilean national hero Bernardo O'Higgins, most of the homes were the same -- outside, they did not look too bad, but inside they were an unholy mess, damaged beyond repair.

Many in O'Higgins were surprised that only two people were known to have died in the quake, and that they were not among the victims.

''There was dust everywhere and the mountains were shaking.

I thought, 'here, the world ends,'' said Ericka Araya Cabrera.

People here pride themselves on being tough and resilient, made so by the unrelenting nature that surrounds them. The moon-like mountains of the Atacama, one of the world's driest places, are on one side, and the intimidating vastness of the Pacific on the other.

The people mostly make their living in the huge copper mines nearby or as fishermen.

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet toured Tocopilla on Thursday and promised to help rebuild the city. Yesterday, the Chilean Army took journalists to see the field hospital it put up in the town soccer field and told of the military's campaign to provide emergency help.

But the general assumption in Tocopilla, hundreds of miles north of Santiago, the Chilean capital, is that the government will do little to help them rebuild.

''It's pure talk, talk, talk and nothing happens. Nothing happens because they are all corrupt,'' said Araya.

As they took a midday break from clean-up yesterday, the people of O'Higgins got ready for an ''olla commun,'' or shared kettle'' which they described as a Chilean tradition for neighborhoods when something bad has happened.

Pineda set up a gas burner outside and cooked chicken and rice that all would share.

''It's the start of the healing,'' said one of her neighbors as they gathered around. ''We'll help each other get our lives back.'' Reuters RC VP0650

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