Monday, March 1, 2010

Chile earthquake

Chile earthquake: more than 700 dead, 2 million displaced

Santiago, Chile » Rescuers searched for survivors Sunday, a day after one of the biggest earthquakes in recorded history rocked Chile, killing more than 700 people while leaving untold numbers missing and 2 million displaced, wounded or otherwise affected.
The death toll jumped Sunday to 708, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet said, nearly doubling as rescue crews reached remote and badly damaged towns.
The 8.8 quake, which hit before dawn Saturday, toppled buildings, buckled freeways and set off sirens thousands of miles away as governments scrambled to protect coastal residents from the ensuing tsunami. Authorities lifted tsunami warnings Sunday after smaller-than-feared waves washed shores from Southern California to Hawaii and Japan.
Looting broke out Sunday in some of the most heavily damaged areas of Chile, where residents were without water or electricity. Crowds overran supermarkets in the port city of Concepción, which sustained widespread damage, and were making off with food, water and diapers but also television sets. Several banks also were hit. Police in armored vehicles sprayed looters with water cannons and made several arrests, mostly of young men.
"The people are desperate and say the only way is to come get stuff for themselves," Concepción resident Patricio Martinez told reporters. "We have money to buy it, but the big stores are closed, so what are we supposed to do"
Bachelet, following an emergency meeting with her cabinet Sunday, announced she would send army troops into the Concepción area, about 70 miles south of the quake's offshore epicenter, to restore order and assist in recovering bodies and searching for survivors. She previously declared swaths of the country "catastrophe zones" and Sunday issued an emergency decree for the area that will be in force for 30 days.
State television reported 350 people were killed in the coastal town of Constitución, near the epicenter.
With images of Haiti's devastation from an earthquake last month still fresh, the world woke up to a 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 a 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.
Concepción 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."
As a flurry of 30 aftershocks, some measuring greater than magnitude 6.0, 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 U.S. 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. Early Sunday, Japan's Meteorological Agency warned a "major" tsunami of up to 10 feet could hit northern coastal areas, although initial waves that reached outlying islands posed little threat.
The U.S. moved briskly to offer assistance to Chile. President 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 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.
Some observers, however, worried international relief efforts could be stretched thin by the continuing response to the Haiti earthquake, which left more than 215,000 people dead and a million homeless.
In Chile, television images showed collapsed highway overpasses and buildings in southern Santiago, the capital, and in Concepción, 300 miles to the south. Bachelet was reported to be headed to the region to inspect the damage.
President-elect Sebastian Pinera, who will take office in two weeks, told reporters in addition to scores of deaths, the country suffered 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.
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 scheduled 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.
A chemical fire at a factory raged out of control and there was smoke in much of the city. Telephone service and electricity were still out in one-third of the capital as of the afternoon, and communication was problematic because of the collapse of several cellphone towers.
Santiago faces possible mass transit chaos, with the city's subway system closed indefinitely while the tracks are inspected.
Bachelet urged drivers to not use major thoroughfares because traffic lights were out and many pedestrian bridges had collapsed.
Major damage was reported in Concepción, the country's second-largest city and the one closest to the epicenter. Several fires due to gas leaks were reported. A multi-story building also collapsed.
The mayor of Concepción, 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.
The city is home to one of the largest universities in the South American nation, Universidad de Concepción, a public school with a decidedly liberal student body. Its grounds are often the site of socialist protests.


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