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Lessons learned from Chile
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Forsyth County News


For over two months the world was enthralled by a story coming out of Chile. The media coverage was intensive. The good news is that it turned out to have a positive ending. People all over the globe celebrated the return to the surface of the 33 miners who were trapped in the Copiapo mine -- and well ahead of schedule.

Everything went as well or better than anticipated. The bad news was that the media didn’t know what the outcome would be and, in usual fashion, their initial approach was on reporting another world disaster.

Once it was learned that the miners were alive, the focus shifted dramatically and virtually every aspect of the rescue mission was recorded and reported. And what a rescue effort it was. The reason for the disaster became secondary, as the entire world followed the actions that were initiated, the hopes of the loved ones who so anxiously waited and the trials and tribulations of the trapped miners

In an interview, Sebastian Pinera, Chile’s president (who was on the scene much of the time) mentioned a number of lessons that were learned from the situation. I thought three of these were particularly appropriate, as what happened in Chile could serve, in many ways as a model in other nations, including our own.

First, action was quick. The government moved in, not waiting for the mine owners to take action. Partly this may have been based upon the likelihood that the owners had created the circumstances that lead to the collapse and may have had mixed motives related to how they proceeded in the matter. Another was just the simple fact that if the miners were alive, time was running out quickly.

There is always a trade-off between moving too quickly, wasting resources and taking action with incomplete information, and delaying too long, where problems have a chance to multiply. Sometimes timing is just a matter of luck. But, in most cases, quick and decisive action seems to be the far better course.

Second, optimism prevailed. The families of the miners and the officials on the scene never gave up hope, even when long odds were against them. As a result, they persevered. As a corollary, they tried not to overstate their hopes but put forth more modest time frames and expected achievements. Nothing kills optimism more effectively than failure based upon impractical and unreachable goals.

A pessimistic approach to any issue usually results in a much less than satisfactory effort and a similar result. Optimism breeds enthusiasm and enthusiasm generates energy and new ideas. That applies not only to situations such as faced in Chile, but even broader issues, such as turning around a struggling national economy. Hope for the future is an essential element in the formula for success -- a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy

Finally, they asked for and accepted assistance from all over the world. They recognized that satisfactory solutions would go well beyond their own resource base and knowhow. And it was this conglomeration of skills and materials that made it all happen.

Too often, whether for political reasons or matters of pride, countries and organizations refuse to call for help until its well past the optimal time. Sometimes, a mistake is compounded by the desire to cover things up and not expose the situation to any more daylight than necessary. And in some cases, issues between government and private sector responsibility cloud the matter and result in neither side putting forth their best efforts.

The Chilean story did have a happy ending. We often spend a lot of time trying to second guess disasters and place blame. That will be done, but here is a wonderful opportunity to do the opposite and learn from what went right and what steps can be “institutionalized” in dealing with natural disasters and other situations of this nature.

Dr. Melvyn Copen lives in both Georgia and Arizona. He is an educator and businessman who has worked and lived in many foreign countries and provides consulting services throughout the world. Please share your comments with him via e-mail at