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Forum wire reports, Published February 28 2010

Big quake rocks Chile as areas of Pacific brace for tsunami

One of the biggest earthquakes in recorded history rocked Chile on Saturday, killing at least 300 people, toppling buildings and freeways, and sending sirens wailing thousands of miles away as governments scrambled to protect coastal residents from the ensuing tsunami.

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet declared parts of the country “catastrophe zones” in the wake of the 8.8 magnitude quake, which was centered about 70 miles offshore from the port city of Concepcion.

With images still fresh of Haiti’s devastation from an earthquake last month, the world woke up to new disaster – and fears of another catastrophic toll. But the Chile quake struck at a relative 21.7 miles deep, and building codes are strict in a country that 50 years ago was struck by the biggest earthquake ever recorded: a magnitude 9.5.

Nonetheless, Bachelet said in an address to the nation Saturday night that 1 million buildings had been damaged. And with television footage showing topsy-turvy buildings, severed bridges and highways whose pavement looked like it had been tilled by some giant farm machine, the death toll was expected to rise.

The quake, lasting 30 seconds or more, struck about 3:30 a.m. (12:30 a.m. CST) Saturday. Residents of Santiago, many of them in their pajamas, poured into the streets.

Concepcion resident Alberto Rozas said his building began to shake and he grabbed his daughter in terror amid shattering glass and an ungodly roar.

“It was awful,” said Rozas, a Concepcion resident who lives next to a

13-story apartment building that was reduced to a pile of rubble. “The only thing I did right was throw clothes on the floor so my daughter and I could escape without ruining our feet. But we’re still covered with cuts.”

As a flurry of 30 aftershocks, some measuring more than magnitude 6, continued to strike the region all day, Chile’s Interior Ministry said tsunami surges reaching heights of 10 feet hit nation’s Juan Fernandez Islands, leaving three people dead and 13 others missing.

Tsunami targets Japan

Memories of the tsunami that was unleashed on Southeast Asia and across the Indian Ocean five years ago haunted governments across the Pacific on Saturday. In Hawaii, 100,000 people were evacuated to higher ground, and the U.S. Navy Pacific Fleet sent four warships steaming out to sea as a precaution against damage near shore at Pearl Harbor.

A series of small, 3-foot tsunamis hit Hawaii’s Big Island shortly after noon, churning up sediment but causing no apparent damage.

The islands were back to paradise by the afternoon, but residents endured a severe disruption and scare earlier in the day: Picturesque beaches were desolate, million-dollar homes were evacuated, shops in Waikiki were shut down, and residents lined up at supermarkets to stock up on food and at gas stations.

There were no immediate reports of widespread damage, injuries or deaths in the U.S. or in much of the Pacific, but a tsunami that swamped a village on an island off Chile killed at least five people and left 11 missing.

Waves hit California, but barely registered amid stormy weather. A surfing contest outside San Diego went on as planned.

It was still possible that the tsunami would gain strength again as it heads to Japan. That’s what happened in 1960, when a deadly tsunami killed dozens of people in Hilo, Hawaii, then went on to claim some 200 lives in Japan.

Japan put all of its eastern coastline on alert for a “major” tsunami Sunday and ordered hundreds of thousands of residents in low-lying areas to seek higher ground. It was the first such alert for Japan’s coasts in nearly 20 years.

Hawaii had originally prepared to bear the brunt of the damage, but the tsunami was smaller than anticipated.

“We dodged a bullet,” said Gerard Fryer, a geophysicist for the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii.

US readies aid

The U.S. moved briskly to offer assistance to Chile. President Barack Obama spoke with Bachelet to offer condolences, praising the country’s quick response and reiterating the United States’ readiness to aid in rescue and recovery.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she planned to leave today for the region. “Our hemisphere comes together in times of crisis, and we will stand side by side with the people of Chile in this emergency,” she said.

Some observers, however, worried that international relief efforts could be stretched thin, with the response to the Haiti earthquake, which left 215,000 people dead and a million homeless, still ongoing.

In Chile, television images showed collapsed highway overpasses and buildings in southern Santiago, the capital, and in Concepcion. Bachelet was reported to be headed to the region to inspect the damage.

President-elect Sebastian Pinera, who takes office in two weeks, told reporters that in addition to scores of deaths, the country had suffered serious damage to its infrastructure, including highways, airports and housing.

“This earthquake has delivered a tremendous blow to Chilean society,” Pinera said, adding he would request emergency funds totaling 2 percent of the budget to help rebuild. “Our government will do everything for the recovery and to accelerate reconstruction.”

Santiago’s international airport will be closed at least through Monday, officials said.

Although the runways are in good condition, the control tower and customs facilities suffered extensive damage, officials said.

Several key structures in Santiago, including ministry buildings, suffered heavy damage, said Education Minister Monica Jimenez, who added that government employees would be asked to stay home Monday as the government assesses structural safety. Public schools that were to have reopened Monday after summer vacation will now reopen March 8.

In Santiago, a chemical fire at a factory raged out of control and there was smoke in much of the city. Telephone and electric power were still out in one-third of the capital as of Saturday afternoon and communication was problematic because of the collapse of several cell phone towers.

Santiago faces possible mass transit chaos next week, with the city’s metro closed indefinitely so that officials can review the tracks. President Bachelet asked that drivers not use major highways, because traffic lights weren’t working and many pedestrian bridges had collapsed onto the freeways.

Major damage was reported in Concepcion, 300 miles south of Santiago, the country’s second-biggest city and the one closest to the epicenter. Several fires were reported due to gas leaks. A 13-story building also collapsed.

Concepcion Mayor Jacqueline van Rysselberghe described her city as “Dante-esque” in the aftermath of the quake, saying two bridges over the Biobio River had collapsed and others were damaged. She said officials still are not sure of the death toll.

The city is home to one of the largest universities in the South American nation, Universidad de Concepcion, a public school with a decidedly liberal student body. Its grounds are often the site for socialist and anarchist protests.

Strongest quakes since 1900

  • 9.5 Chile, May 22, 1960

  • 9.2 Prince William Sound, Alaska, March 28, 1964

  • 9.1 Northern Sumatra coast, Dec. 26, 2004

  • 9.0 Kamchatka, Nov. 11, 1952

  • 8.8 Ecuador coast, Jan. 31, 1906

  • 8.8 Chile, Saturday

    Source: U.S. Geological Survey