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Monster earthquake disrupts Chilean fruit business

by Tad Thompson | February 28, 2010
The 8.8-magnitude earthquake that struck Chile at 3:34 a.m. on Feb. 27 has seriously affected Chile's fruit exports.

In an e-mail exchange with The Produce News Feb. 28, Robert Palaima, president of Delaware River Stevedores, based in Philadelphia, said that he had not had messages returned from Chile. However, he did speak with Andrés Montecinos, who heads the reefer division for CSAV, the Chilean that carries Chilean fruit to Philadelphia’s Tioga Marine Fruit Terminal, which is managed by Delaware River Stevedores.

Referring to the Chilean port of Valparaiso, Mr. Palaima wrote, "I understand two berths are OK in Valpo, four are damaged. Andrés expects the season to resume once the ports reopen. The Chileans are remarkable people."

On March 1, Gerry Smirniotis, vice president and stone fruit category director at The Oppenheimer Group in Wilmington, DE, indicated by e-mail that he had spoken with Oppenheimer associates in Chile, and “it looks like the biggest challenge will be with the logistics as many roads have been damaged. Most storages had backup generators as needed. As we all have heard, most of the damage is along the coast south of Santiago. We did hear the port of Valparaiso opened last night, not sure how limited the loading is at this time.”

In a phone conversation with The Produce News on the morning of Feb. 28, Peter Kopke, president of Wm. H. Kopke, Jr. Inc. in Lake Success, NY, said, “I have no information, other than that there is severe damage, a lack of power and various cold storages are incapacitated. That is all we know. We can’t get anyone on the phone. But we know that so far. You can be sure that the whole thing is going to be upset. I would be surprised if they would be able to get anything going for quite awhile.”

Mr. Kopke said that he had heard no news from Valparaiso, “but there is a lot of damage along the coast. That is further to the south than Valparaiso. There is no information because the people don’t know themselves because of cut communications. The Pan American highway is cut south of Santiago in various places and bridges are down. That is the main thoroughfare for all the trucks” hauling fruit from Chile’s late season southern districts to the seaports.

In the preceding days, Chilean fruit importers were seeing volumes finally starting to build heading into March after a disappointing season. Chile’s 2009-10 fruit exports were down because of freezing weather in the early part of the season. Cold weather since harvesting lowered productivity in the fields.

According to the U.S. Geological Service, the earthquake’s epicenter was off the coast of Maule, Chile, which is 70 miles north-northeast of Concepcion, and 200 miles southwest of Santiago. The USGS indicated that 12 million people were exposed to strong shaking in the quake.

News reports early March 1 indicated that Chile’s death toll had risen to 708. According to CNN, the earthquake was the fifth most powerful quake recorded since 1900.