Powerful quake off Chile slams waves into coastal towns, five killed

2015-09-17 10:15


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Santiago - A magnitude 8.3 earthquake struck off the coast of Chile on Wednesday, killing at least five people and slamming powerful waves into coastal towns.

More than a million people were forced from their homes as the government ordered the evacuation of coastal areas, anxious to avoid a repeat of a quake disaster in 2010 when authorities were slow to warn of a tsunami that killed hundreds.

"It's been awful. We ran out of the house with our grandchildren and now we are on a hill hoping it will be over soon," said Maria Angelica Leiva from the coastal town of Navidad.

"It is all very dark, and we just hope the sea hasn't reached our house," she said.

The quake and heavy waves caused flooding in coastal towns, damaged buildings and knocked out power in the worst hit areas of central Chile and shook buildings in the capital city of Santiago about 280km to the south.

President Michelle Bachelet said she planned to travel to the areas worst affected by the quake, the biggest to hit the world's top copper producer since 2010.

"Once again we're having to deal with another harsh blow from nature," Bachelet said in a televised statement.

Operations were suspended at two major copper mines operated by Codelco and Antofagasta PLC, which generate an annual capacity of more than 600 000 tonnes.

Copper prices on the London Metal Exchange rose to two-month highs in early Asian trading as worries about supply disruptions offset lingering concerns about demand from China amid copper's longest rout in years.

The quake was felt as far away as Buenos Aires in Argentina.

Tsunami advisories were issued for parts of South America, Hawaii, California and French Polynesia, although waves were generally expected to be small.

On the remote Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean, islanders were evacuated to a church in the only town of Hanga Roa, and higher-than-normal water levels were reported shortly after midnight, according to posts on social media.

As far away as New Zealand, authorities warned of "unusually strong currents" and urged residents in eastern coastal areas to stay out of the water and off beaches.

Aftershocks felt

Strong aftershocks continued to rattle central Chile, a relatively uninhabited, agricultural region south of the country's mining belt.

"It's going to be a long night," said Ronny Perez in the inland Chilean city of Illapel, about 46km from the epicentre, which was without electricity or drinking water.

A 26-year-old woman was killed by a collapsing wall in Illapel and another person died from a heart attack in Santiago, according to media reports.

The coastal town of Coquimbo was hit by waves of up to 4.5m after the earthquake, Chile's navy said.

"We're going through a really grave situation with the tsunami. We have residential neighborhoods that have flooded.... The ocean has reached the downtown area," said Coquimbo Mayor Cristian Galleguillos.

Local residents reported looting of evacuated houses in Los Vilos, another seaside town, its mayor said.

Chile is due to celebrate its national holiday on Friday, but roads were cut off and public transport cancelled between Santiago and the north, local media reported, raising the spectre of travel chaos as families try to gather.

The quake is the latest natural disaster to roil mining in the resource-rich South American country, which accounts for a third of global copper output.

State copper miner Codelco said it had suspended mining operations at its Andina mine and had evacuated workers from its Ventanas smelter. Antofagasta said it had halted operations at its flagship Los Pelambres copper mine and would wait until daybreak to assess damage.

Active quake zone

Chile, which runs along a highly seismic and volcanic zone where tectonic plates meet, is no stranger to earthquakes.

In 2014, an 8.2 magnitude quake struck near the northern city of Iquique, and four years earlier an 8.8 magnitude earthquake in central-southern Chile triggered a massive tsunami, and more than 500 people were killed.

In the hours following that quake, President Bachelet and other government officials misjudged the extent of damage and declined offers of international aid. That delayed the flow of assistance to disaster areas, leaving many survivors feeling they had been abandoned by the government.

Compounding matters, the Chilean navy's catastrophe-alert system failed to warn the population of impending tsunamis, leaving hundreds who survived the initial quake to be engulfed by massive waves that followed.

Bachelet’s government was also slow to prevent looting following the quake. Its failings hit her high approval ratings at the end of her presidential term, although she remained popular and was elected again in 2013.

Read more on:    chile  |  natural disasters

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