A state of catastrophe has been declared after an 8.8-magnitude earthquake struck early Saturday morning off the coast of central Chile. Damage and casualty assessments are still being made, but buildings, bridges and power lines are down in the capital of Santiago, as well as in Concepcion and other areas. Dozens of powerful aftershocks have also rattled the region.
With more than 700 people reported dead, rescuers smashed through fallen walls and sawed into rubble Sunday in an urgent push to find survivors of the massive earthquake that roared through Chile a day earlier. Some 2 million were said to be displaced, injured or otherwise impaired by the disaster. Untold numbers remained missing.
The U.S. State Department discouraged tourist and non-essential travel by American citizens to Chile and urged those already here to contact their families or register at the U.S. Embassy in Santiago.
Government forces struggled to contain looting in some of the most heavily damaged areas, dispatching the army to the task in Concepcion, Chile’s second-largest city. Large parts of the country remained without water or electricity. Tent triage centers were being set up around battered hospitals as authorities implored doctors to report to work to attend the wounded and a series of strong aftershocks continued to rattle the disaster zone.
Chilean President Michelle Bachelet announced the death toll from one of the most powerful quakes on record had jumped to 708, nearly doubling as rescue crews reached remote, devastated towns close to the offshore epicenter. “These numbers will continue to grow,” she said.
In one such coastal community, Constitucion, as many as 350 people may have been killed by the quake and a tsunami wave that hit about half an hour later, covering shattered homes with thick mud, state television reported. Boats were tossed from the sea like paper toys, landing with a crash onto the roofs of houses.
“This is an emergency without parallel in the history of Chile,” Bachelet said. “We will need everyone from the public and private sector . . . to join in a gigantic effort” to recover, she added, allowing for the first time that international aid will be welcomed.
Bachelet’s term in office ends March 11, when President-elect Sebastian Pi2/3era takes charge.
The magnitude 8.8 quake, which hit before dawn on Saturday, toppled buildings, buckled freeways and set off sirens thousands of miles away as governments scrambled to protect coastal residents from the ensuing tsunami. Even with a steady rattling of aftershocks, authorities lifted tsunami warnings Sunday after smaller-than-feared waves washed shores from Southern California to Hawaii and Japan. But Chilean authorities acknowledged they had underestimated the potential for tsunami destruction here in places such as Constitucion and Robinson Crusoe Island off Chile.
Looting broke out Sunday in some of the most heavily damaged areas, where residents complained they were hungry and bereft of basic supplies. Crowds overran supermarkets in Concepcion, about 70 miles south of the epicenter, and were making off with food, water and diapers but also television sets. Several banks, pharmacies and gasoline stations were also hit. At nearby San Pedro, crowds swarmed a shopping mall.
Police in armored vehicles sprayed looters with water cannon and tear gas and made several arrests, mostly of young men.
“The people are desperate and say the only way is to come get stuff for themselves,” Concepcion 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 a six-hour emergency meeting with her Cabinet Sunday, announced she was sending 10,000 army troops into the Concepcion area and elsewhere to restore order and assist in recovering bodies and searching for survivors. Using the armed forces is always a sensitive topic in a country that lived under nearly two decades of military dictatorship.
Army to enforce curfew: On Saturday, Bachelet, declared swaths of the country “catastrophe zones” and later issued a 30-day emergency decree for the quake zone. It allows the army to be in charge and to enforce a curfew. Hoping to ease panic, she said basic supplies including food will be distributed free of charge by supermarket chains in the largely soft-soil coastal states of Biob o and Maule where most of the deaths tabulated so far took place.
The mayor of Concepcion, Jacqueline van Rysselberghe, issued a dramatic plea for help to squelch the pillaging. “It is out of control!” she told Chilean television.
Travel is difficult: More than 24 hours after the quake hit, reaching ground-zero sites was an arduous task. Traffic streamed slowly southward from Santiago along buckled roads and cracked overpasses, often making detours on rural side paths. The bus station in Santiago was swamped with Chileans trying to travel south or send food and supplies to their families; bus companies canceled most trips because of road conditions.
Fear of aftershocks: In the disaster zone, thousands of people slept outside, wrapped in blankets or with small campfires against the cold, forced from their homes by the structures’ precarious condition or by fear stoked by the aftershocks — more than 100 of which registered magnitude 5 or higher, according to the Associated Press.
Among the rescue teams reaching Concepcion was the 42-member Santiago Firefighters Task Force, which recently returned to Chile from Haiti where it performed the similar job of searching for survivors.
Efforts in Concepcion focused in part on a new, 15-story apartment building that collapsed onto one side. Neighbors reported hearing screams from beneath the rubble and feared that as many as 100 people were trapped inside. Rescuers worked through the day Sunday slicing through concrete, consulting architectural blueprints and pulling survivors as well as bodies — eight of them — from the rubble. At least 60 people were either rescued or emerged on their own power.
Just a few yards from the rescue, the looting reached a fever pitch. At first it seemed to be the work of the poor but soon people of more affluent classes joined in. Some people made off with raw chickens and meats, even though they had no way to cook or store them because of lack of electricity and gas.
The government has said half a million homes were destroyed or severely damaged and around 2 million people displaced, injured or harmed in some way by the quake.
Clinton to visit: U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she would go ahead with a planned visit to Chile and was scheduled to arrive in Santiago on Tuesday as part of a five-nation trip. A dinner with Bachelet was canceled, however.
Chile’s president-elect, Sebastian Pinera, has warned that damage from the powerful earthquake is worse than initially thought.
“I want to warn Chileans that the magnitude and the impact of this earthquake and this calamity is much deeper, much more damaging and much more serious than we thought,” Mr Pinera said in broadcast comments.
Chile’s exports are dominated by copper mining, which has not been badly effected, though its agricultural produce could be more hard hit.
For example, the large apple-growing industry has been affected by widespread destruction of trees and transport links just as the harvest is starting.
This could cause apple prices in European markets to rise, benefiting other suppliers such as New Zealand, Turners & Growers chief executive Jeff Wesley said.
Chilean apples are major competitors with New Zealand in off-season northern hemisphere markets.
Copper prices immediately rose to 11-month highs in after-hours electronic trading on the Comex division of the New York Mercantile Exchange as news came through of mines being shut.
These were due mainly to power losses, which affected only four mines producing 16% of the total output. Production has since resumed as power was restored. Most of Chile’s copper deposits and port facilities are located in the northern half of the country and had no reports of damage.
The $US30 billion top figures of damage costs comes from Eqecat, a catastrophic events risk assessor. It says most of the damage – 55-65% – would be from residential structures, with commercial damage accounting for 20-30% of the total and industrial damage making up 15-20%.
Apart from buildings, the main damage was to the highway and bridges. The Pan-American highway, the country’s main thoroughfare, was closed at several points south of Santiago, although bypasses have been set up.
Finance Minister Andres Velasco said it was too early to estimate the economic cost of the quake. He added that Chile’s policy of funneling windfall copper profits into a $US14.7 billion rainy-day fiscal savings fund would help shoulder the cost of rebuilding.
“Chile has saved for a very long time in order to have the savings to be able to face situations like this,” he said.
Chile’s securities exchange said it would operate as normal on Monday.