State and Public Health Responses to Natural Disasters: Earthquakes in Argentina and Chile, 1835–1939

Sunday, January 4, 2015: 2:50 PM
Carnegie Room East (Sheraton New York)
Quinn Dauer, Indiana University Southeast
Natural disasters and public health responses to them, offer a window into the state-formation process. In a catastrophe’s aftermath, national, provincial, and municipal officials struggled over public health policies to mitigate the outbreak of disease provide medical care, potable water and fresh food for survivors. Architects and urban planners drew up blue prints to rebuild or construct new cities and urban areas with sanitation, open spaces, and wider streets. Much of the literature on public health focuses on central regions or capital cities such as Buenos Aires or Rio de Janeiro. Instead, examining secondary cities and borderlands regions provide an opportunity to study the nature and bonds between the state and interior areas, associations among divergent regions, and directions in public health policy.  

Argentina and Chile offer contrasting examples of state formation. Argentine history is characterized by the antagonism between the hegemonic port city of Buenos Aires and the interior provinces, especially in the west, where federalist, anti-centralist traditions led to long and bloody conflicts. In the immediate aftermath of earthquakes in Mendoza (1861) and San Juan and La Rioja (1894), provincial and municipal officials in western Argentina organized make-shift hospitals and collected provisions for survivors. Often the first doctors and nurses to arrive on the scene were from Chile bringing with them medicine and basic necessities, while relief supplies from Buenos Aires were slow to arrive. By contrast, between 1829 and 1833, the conservatives led by Diego Portales created a strong centralized Chilean state. Chile’s central region and municipalities throughout the country quickly sent boats that carried doctors, nurses, medicine, potable water, and food to earthquake survivors in Concepción (1835), Arica (1868), and Chillán (1939). Finally, reconstruction projects in both Argentina and Chile proposed by architects and urban planners included public health measures and promised improved sanitary conditions.