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Confusion over Chile earthquake death toll sparks frustration

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(Read caption) Chilean earthquake: Volunteers erect temporary shelters on Friday for earthquake survivors whose homes were damaged in the 8.8 magnitude earthquake in Constitucion, Chile.

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Modern society generally wants answers, now. Diagnose the problem, fix it. But confusion over Chile’s death toll shows the pitfalls of trying to relay the scope of a tragedy before being ready.

On Feb. 27, the day the 8.8 magnitude earthquake struck Chile, the death toll was placed at 214. Even though officials said they expected it to rise, the nation was shocked when 24 hours later, it had risen to more than 700. Throughout the week the numbers crept up slowly, to 802 officially dead. By yesterday evening, officials sharply reduced that number, to 279.

IN PICTURES: Images from the magnitude-8.8 earthquake in Chile

So what is the death toll? Will it be miraculously low, given the fact that Chile just experienced one of the strongest earthquakes in a century? Or may it shoot up once again, perhaps even surpassing 802?

The answer is: we simply do not know.

The Chilean government was initially criticized for underestimating the extent of damage, and not warning residents of an impending tsunami. That, critics say, led to bad decisions about not accepting foreign aid immediately or sending in troops to quell reports of looting.

The confusion over the death toll, to some observers, is just another example of a tragedy being mishandled by the government.

“If they don’t know how many people have died, then they are not really in control of the situation,” says Patricio Navia, a Chilean columnist and professor at New York University.

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