Authorities lifted tsunami warnings for Chile’s long coastline early yesterday after a magnitude 8.2 earthquake struck the South American nation’s northern coast, triggering a tsunami that pounded the shore with 2m waves. Six people were crushed to death or suffered fatal heart attacks, a remarkably low toll for such a powerful shift in the Earth’s crust.
The extent of damage from Tuesday night’s quake could not be fully assessed before daybreak, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet said, but she was not taking any chances.
She declared a state of emergency in the region and sent a military plane with 100 anti-riot police to join 300 soldiers deployed to prevent looting and round up escaped prisoners.
Thousands of people were evacuated from low-lying areas, but most began to return home as the tsunami alerts were gradually lifted in Chile’s long coast.
The shaking touched off landslides that blocked roads, knocked out power for thousands, damaged an airport and provoked fires that destroyed several businesses.
About 300 inmates escaped from a women’s prison in the city of Iquique, forcing the closure of the border with Peru. The quake struck 99km northwest of Iquique.
Officials said about two dozen had been captured early yesterday.
In Arica, another city close to the quake’s offshore epicenter, hospitals treated minor injuries, and some homes made of adobe were destroyed, authorities said.
The Chilean Navy lifted tsunami warnings for all of the nation’s long coast line at about 7am. The mandatory evacuation orders had remained in effect until nearly dawn for coastal areas north of Antofagasta.
Bachelet, who just returned to the presidency three weeks ago, spoke well after midnight, five hours after the quake struck and she flew to quake-hit regions yesterday morning to assess the damage.
It was not lost on many Chileans that the last time she presided over a major quake, days before the end of her 2006-2010 term, her emergency preparedness office prematurely waved off a tsunami danger.
Most of the 500 dead from that magnitude 8.8 tremor survived the shaking, only to be caught in killer waves in a disaster that destroyed 220,000 homes and washed away large parts of coastal communities.
“The country has done a good job of confronting the emergency. I call on everyone to stay calm and follow the authorities’ instructions,” Bachelet tweeted after Tuesday night’s temblor.
When she finally addressed the nation, she said the interior minister would monitor the tsunami threat throughout the night and coordinate the emergency response.
The US Geological Survey initially reported the quake to be a magnitude 8, but later upgraded the magnitude of the quake that struck 99km northwest of Iquique. More than 20 significant aftershocks followed, including a 6.2 tremor.