CONSTITUCION, Chile – Shipments of food, water, clothing and other basics finally began pouring in Wednesday to this earthquake-devastated town, where increasingly hungry and frustrated residents have harshly criticized what they term a tardy response by the national government.

Still, fear and anger continued to stalk the community, and other hard-hit coastal cities such as Concepcion where false reports of a tsunami alert, after a particularly strong aftershock, sent panicked residents rushing uphill toward the mountains.

Here, in this working-class town some 200 miles south of Santiago, the capital, many residents Wednesday donned surgical masks against the odor of decomposing bodies and other organic material inside collapsed buildings. Bulldozers and other machinery finally arrived to pick through the debris. A refrigerator truck was parked alongside a temporary morgue that began handling unclaimed corpses.

Of 800 deaths nationwide from Saturday’s magnitude 8.8 quake, some 500 occurred in this forestry center of 55,000. Many still are missing, and bodies continue to wash up in the surf.

Officials say 90 percent of the central area of town was damaged or flattened by the earthquake and ensuing series of tsunamis, which they said reached almost 100 feet in height nearly two miles inland, washing away thousands of residences. The Chilean military has acknowledged it erred in failing to alert local authorities and residents to the likelihood of a tsunami.

Defensive about having responded slowly, the Chilean government has stepped up efforts to deliver trucks of food and other essential supplies.

“Finally, we know there is food available,” said Margarita Arabela, 38, a mother of two who, armed with pots and pans, arrived at the Chacarillas school here Wednesday to collect a donated lunch. The schoolhouse was one of several sites set up around town to deliver food and clothing.

“It took so long, we were really worried. But this is a great relief.”

The food came from both the government and from private donors. The Chacarillas school, on a hillside above town, was gearing up to serve about 700 meals a day. Residents who lost everything could also choose from stacks of donated clothing and shoes.

However, Arabela and others continued to criticize what they called a slow and confusing response for a city where all of the shops were sacked and, until Tuesday, there was virtually no food to be purchased. Some shops here began stocking fresh fruits and vegetables again on Wednesday.

Several hungry residents said they only heard about the shelters through word of mouth, and were disappointed there was no broader distribution from central points through outlying neighborhoods.

“We were really preoccupied about what we would find to eat,” said Maria Valenzuela, who is one of many here living in a makeshift camp in the hills after her home was destroyed.

Signs on the road into town blared out their message: “We need food.” “Hungry Women and Children.” “Food please.”

Officials are asking the needy to register for aid, including food, clothing and diapers. Many complained that they had given their names this week but heard nothing back.

“We gave all our particulars, and told them what we need, but so far nothing has arrived,” said Jorge Orrellano, 58.

The military arrived in force here Tuesday, restoring a measure of calm to a city that had gone through a period of near-anarchy after Saturday’s temblor. Military teams were also distributing water from trucks and easing access in and exit from the city, providing a new sense of order.


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