Huge Chile earthquake triggers tsunami warnings in Pacific

Miami HeraldFebruary 27, 2010 

Nearly 150 people are dead after an 8.8 magnitude earthquake struck Chile Saturday — and more people are missing after enormous waves reached land, the head of the country's emergency services said Saturday.

Television images showed a collapsed highway with upturned cars and a collapsed 15-story apartment building. The Llacolen bridge that connected the southern city of Concepcion and San Pedro de la Paz collapsed.

The Housing Minister estimated that 1.5 million homes were damaged, 500,000 of them severely. Damages to the international airport in Santiago forced officials to close it for at least three days.

The epicenter of the quake was offshore near Maule, the U.S. Geological Survey said, some 70 miles northeast of Concepcion. Tsunami warnings were issued throughout the Pacific, and people in lowland and coastal areas in Hawaii were evacuated.

"Right now there are 147 dead, [but that] is a figure that is varying minute by minute,'' Carmen Fernandez, head of Chile's national emergency services office, said in a televised news conference.

Fernandez said although experts had not officially categorized huge waves that struck the coast as "tsunamis," areas such as the Juan Fernandez Islands about 400 miles from Chile's coast, which did not suffer earthquake destruction, were damaged — by water.

"I call that a tsunami," Fernandez said. "Maybe the technicians will call it something else. But the fact of the matter is, we have damages and we have people who are missing.''

President Michelle Bachelet spent the afternoon flying over affected areas, trying to establish communications with cut-off areas. She said coastal residents should not panic, but should head for high ground.

She said many regions had no water or electricity and several hospitals were evacuated.

In the Island of Juan Fernandez, the wave damaged a school, the city hall and the town plaza, the Ministry of Interior reported.

Three people were missing in Valparaiso when a large wave flooded a town called Juan Bautista on Robinson Crusoe island, mayor Ivan de la Maza told the newspaper Mostrador.

Santiago, the capital, also suffered damages, including chemical warehouses in Quilicura and Colina, which were ablaze. At least five bridges collapsed, as did the Miraflores overpass, sending cars toppling.

"People who had the older adobe houses suffered damages,'' Bachelet told reporters. "We have seen many houses very damaged. Houses have collapsed, and some people have taken advantage of the opportunity to loot them.''

In Maule, Hualane and Nicanten hospitals were damaged but were still operational while two others in Parral and Talca were evacuated.

"We are talking about an earthquake practically never seen before in Chile,'' Housing Minister Patricia Poblete told TV Chile. "This was an 8.7 quake, we are talking almost a cataclysm. Overall, I would say the city resisted well.''

Some newer buildings did not fare as well, and will be investigated, she said.

"The building was following down on top of us,'' said Carolina Pizarro, who lives in a new building in Maipu, which gave out while older structures beside it remained standing. "We couldn't open the doors. We had to kick them down.''

Her neighbor Marisol Araya said the noise from the 90-second quake terrified residents during the 3:44 AM quake.

"It was like a horror movie,'' Araya said.

Experts said residents can expect more tremors.

"The size of this earthquake is much bigger than Haiti's earthquake,'' Sergio Barrientos, a geologist at the University of Chile, told TV Chile. "Haiti's fault was about two meters wide — this one is eight meters in some places.''

ON THE WEB

Read more about the earthquake in Chile at miamiherald.com

Tsunami races across Pacific, threatens Hawaii at miamiherald.com

Read about the California tsunami warning at sanluisobispo.com

Read about the Alaska tsunami warning at adn.com

Hawaii tsunami coverage can be found here.

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