CONCEPCION, Chile – Chile’s president defended herself Tuesday against charges of government incompetence in a disaster that not only shattered lives and property but challenged the nation’s very identity.

A society built on pride in its wealth and orderliness found itself suddenly facing gangs of rioters, a wounded economy and a shaken sense of civic responsibility. A government that sent 15 tons of food and medicine, a search and rescue team and 20 doctors to Haiti after the earthquake there found itself seeking emergency aid from other countries.

In Lota, a former coal mining town of 30,000 along the heavily damaged coast, Mayor Jorge Venegas said Tuesday that a “psychosis” had taken hold.

A gas station went up in flames, gunfire rattled through the night and residents guarded streets against roaming bands of looters, he told Radio Bio Bio. He said 2,000 homes had been destroyed, thousands were living in the streets and people were wielding guns, iron bars and long sticks to protect their possessions.

“It’s urgent that the army reach our city,” Venegas pleaded.

“It’s a collective hysteria,” said Francisco Santa Cruz, 20, an aid worker caring for 56 families in a camp for the newly homeless in San Pedro, across the Bio Bio River from Concepcion, the biggest city in the quake zone.

Like Venegas in Lota, Santa Cruz said he heard gunfire throughout the night.

“They used to call us (Chileans) the jaguars of South America,” he said, using Chilean slang for proud and strong. “But now we know that we’re not even close to that.”

President Michelle Bachelet was on the defensive against a storm of claims that the government’s response to the disaster was a failure.

La Tercera, an influential daily, said the looting and violence showed “incomprehensible weakness and slowness” by authorities. El Mercurio, a conservative publication many consider Chile’s paper of record, called on President-elect Sebastian Pinera, who takes office March 11, to “restore hope” to Chile.

The government on Monday imposed an 8 p.m.-to-noon curfew and sent 14,000 troops to Concepcion and surrounding areas to stop widespread looting — after virtually every market in the city had been sacked. On Tuesday the curfew was extended to begin at 6 p.m.

“People probably are always going to feel that we could have done things better,” Bachelet insisted before receiving U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who promised American aid. “But the reality is given the extent (of destruction), it always will be insufficient.”

The death toll rose to 796 Tuesday and aftershocks continued to roll through the region; the stronger ones frightened residents living in temporary shelter.

Saturday’s magnitude 8.8 quake and subsequent tsunami ravaged towns and cities along a 435-mile stretch of Chile’s Pacific coast. Downed bridges and damaged or debris-strewn highways made transit difficult if not impossible in many areas.

Chileans seemed deeply troubled by what the disaster showed about their government — and themselves. Some looters were people grabbing basic necessities like toilet paper, but many appeared to be well-dressed citizens carting off electronic goods.

Catalina Sandoval, a 22-year-old construction engineering student in Concepcion, said she felt “rage, impotence and disillusion” with the lawlessness.

“I’m shocked,” Sandoval said. “Not only criminals but well-off people are stealing.”

Leonardo Sanhueza lamented in the Ultimas Noticias newspaper a “social disintegration” in the wealthy country that has led some people simply “to look out for themselves — and let the rest eat like dogs.”

Some Chileans were so troubled that even long-held civic beliefs were shaken. Since the bloody dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet ended 20 years ago, Chileans have preferred that soldiers stay inside their barracks.

But police were completely outnumbered when looting began after the quake, and residents Tuesday cheered an armored troop convoy and the arrival of a military C-130 in Concepcion delivering aid supplies.

About 2 million people were injured, made homeless or suffered other major losses. Destruction was widespread and food scarce all along the coast.


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