Giant quake wallops Chile

Temblor hundreds of times as powerful as Haiti's kills more than 300, triggers tsunami warnings

February 28, 2010|By Chris Kraul | Tribune Newspapers

BOGOTA, Colombia — — One of the biggest earthquakes in recorded history rocked Chile on Saturday, killing more than 300 people, toppling buildings and freeways, and setting off sirens 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 magnitude-8.8 quake, which was centered about 70 miles offshore from the port city of Concepcion.

With images of Haiti's devastation from an earthquake last month still fresh, the world woke up to new disaster and fears of another catastrophic toll. But the Chile quake's epicenter was relatively deep, at 21.7 miles, 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 stations showing topsy-turvy structures, severed bridges and highways whose pavement looked as if it had been tilled by some giant farm machine, the death toll was expected to rise.

The huge earthquake that struck off the coast of Chile is similar to the 2004 Indian Ocean temblor that triggered deadly tsunami waves. "It's part of an elite class of giant earthquakes," said U.S. Geological Survey geologist Brian Atwater.

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, who lives next to a 15-story apartment building that was reduced to 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."

About 13 million people live in the area where shaking was strong to severe, according to the USGS. Robert Williams, a USGS geophysicist, said the Chilean quake was hundreds of times more powerful than Haiti's magnitude-7 quake, though it was deeper and cost far fewer lives.

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

Memories of the tsunami that was unleashed on Southeast Asia and around 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 Navy's Pacific Fleet sent four warships 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 1 p.m., churning up sediment but causing no apparent damage. Hours later, Japan's Meteorological Agency said the first tsunami reached Japan. It was just 4 inches high. There were no reports of damage.

Officials warned that bigger waves could reach Japan's main islands, and kept up their alert for the nation's Pacific coastline.

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 Clinton said she planned to visit the region Sunday. "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.

In Chile, television images showed collapsed highway overpasses and buildings in southern Santiago, the capital, and in Concepcion, 300 miles to the south. Bachelet went to the region to inspect the damage.

President-elect Sebastian Pinera, who will take 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 fine, the control tower and customs facilities suffered extensive damage, officials said.

Key structures in Santiago, including ministry buildings, suffered heavy damage, said Education Minister Monica Jimenez. Government employees will be asked to stay home Monday as officials assesses structural safety, she said. Public schools that were to have reopened Monday after summer vacation are now set to reopen March 8.

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

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