SANTIAGO - A powerful 8.2-magnitude earthquake hit northern Chile’s Pacific coast on Tuesday, killing at least six people as tsunami waves of more than two meters lashed the shore.
The quake sent panicked residents pouring into the streets, with more than 900,000 people along Chile’s coast heeding government orders to evacuate their homes and seek higher ground. But by Wednesday morning thousands of people had begun returning home with the arrival of daylight to survey the destruction.
Chilean television showed sagging roofs, broken windows and shelves and merchandise on the floor at shopping centers in Iquique, the city closest to the quake’s epicentre. Thousands of people had slept in the open on hills surrounding the city during the night, waiting out a tsunami alert. Similar evacuation warnings were issued in a ripple effect up the Pacific coast of South America and into Central America.
About 10 hours after the two-minute quake, the Chilean government lifted what remained of the nationwide tsunami alert. Chilean Interior Ministry Rodrigo Penailillo asked people returning home to remain on alert, as sea levels will remain as much as a meter higher than usual. He said six people - four men and two women - were killed in Iquique and the nearby Alto Hospicio municipality.
Some fires broke out, roads were damaged and power was knocked out in the northern city of Arica, although there was no widespread destruction, said disaster relief agency ONEMI. “The street lights were busted, people ran terrified. After the earthquake there were several aftershocks,” Veronica Castillo told AFP from Arica, 1,000 miles north of the capital Santiago. In Iquique, fisherman reported that 80 boats had been destroyed, sunk or floated out to sea. The city’s airport control tower was damaged and flights to Iquique, Arica and the northern city of Antofagasta were cancelled. Landslides hit the road linking Iquique with the rest of the country.
Chile said that so far there have been 17 aftershocks and there will be more in coming days as some energy from the quake zone has yet to be released, according to Sergio Barrientos of the seismological service at the University of Chile.
President Michelle Bachelet declared parts of northern Chile to be disaster zones and travelled to Arica and Iquique to survey the damage and lead relief efforts. She said soldiers would be dispatched to the areas to prevent looting and disorder from breaking out as they did after a deadly 8.8-magnitude quake in 2010.
More than 500 people died and $30 billion in damage was wrought in that quake. In Iquique, some 300 prisoners escaped from a jail amid the chaos triggered by the new tremor. A total of 39 of them have been recaptured, the Interior Ministry said.
The quake struck at 8:46 pm (2346 GMT) at a depth of 10 kilometres, 83 kilometres from Iquique on Chile’s northern coast, the United States Geological Survey said. Chile’s National Seismological Center placed it four times deeper, however.
The Hawaii-based Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued an alert for residents living along more than 3,000 miles (4,800 kilometres) of coastline in South and Central America. It said waves of more than six feet (two meters) had been generated.
The impact of the offshore quake went beyond Chile, with Ecuador, Peru and Honduras also issuing tsunami warnings. In Peru, nine minor injuries were documented and damage to homes in southern villages was reported.
Tremors were felt as far inland as Bolivia, while across the Pacific in Indonesia, officials said that the Asian nation could be hit by waves of up to half a meter from the Chilean quake.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center also issued a warning for Colombia and Panama, and “watches” for at least six other countries. The coastal area hit Tuesday has been the scene of numerous quakes in recent days. On Sunday, a 6.0-magnitude earthquake struck, followed by at least two moderate aftershocks.