Chile quake death toll tops 700

Chile’s earthquake death toll topped 700 on Sunday as rescuers searched for survivors and the extent of the disaster became clear in coastal areas where giant waves swept away homes, even as the government apologised for failing to issue a tsunami alert.

The Chilean government declared a curfew in two of the worst-hit areas, the central Maule region and the second city of Concepcion and its province, where security fears rose as police fired tear gas and water cannons to disperse gangs of looters.

Meanwhile, a powerful new 6,2-magnitude aftershock struck central Chile late on Sunday, a United States government agency reported.

President Michelle Bachelet said she expected the toll of 708 to rise further, while her government admitted it had erred by failing to warn Chileans about the tsunami risk following Saturday’s 8,8-magnitude quake.

State television reported that more than 300 bodies had been found in the swamped fishing village of Constitucion alone, although this could not be immediately confirmed.

Giant waves engulfed seaside towns and villages, drowning residents, washing away entire homes and leaving desperate survivors to stare in disbelief at the seaweed clinging to what was left of their livelihoods.

“The wave came and covered everything. It was something like 6m high,” Carlos Palma told Agence France-Presse as he tried to salvage belongings in the seaside town of Penco.

Official data from US experts at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre put the biggest tsunami wave at 2,6m, but whatever its size the devastation in coastal areas was clear.

The wave came without warning for many, sweeping helpless people out to sea and reducing all but the strongest structures in its path into useless flotsam and jetsam.

“There was a mistake,” said Defence Minister Francisco Vidal. The navy “made a mistake by not issuing a tsunami alert”.

The mayor of Chile’s worst-hit main city of Concepcion pleaded urgently for help as rescuers with heat detectors hunted for dozens of people believed to be trapped in a 15-story apartment block toppled on its side by the quake.

The army was also called in to help the overwhelmed police force deal with looters, some of whom pushed away shopping trolleys full of provisions while others made off with plasma TVs and electrical appliances.

“We need food for the population.
We are without supplies, and if we don’t resolve that we are going to have serious security problems during the night,” said mayor Jacqueline van Rysselberghe, warning of grave “social tension”.

Maule military commander Guillermo Ramirez sent soldiers with megaphones to warn the 500 000 inhabitants of Concepcion of the dusk-to-dawn curfew they had to observe.

“I would advise criminals not to mess with the armed forces. Our response will be severe, but within the context of the law,” he told would-be looters.

Bachelet, who is due to hand over power to her successor, Sebastian Pinera, on March 11, said the air force was to begin flying in food and vital aid to badly hit areas, some of which were largely cut off by the quake.

Destruction and damage
About two million Chileans, or one eighth of the entire population, are estimated to have been affected by Saturday’s temblor, which, along with an Ecuador quake in 1906, is the seventh most powerful on record.

The worst disaster to befall Chile in 50 years sliced main highways with massive fissures, and bridges and overpasses lay in crumpled heaps and at twisted angles, unpassable and going nowhere.

Officials said 1,5-million houses and buildings were destroyed or badly damaged. The historic centre of the town of Curico was said to be about 90% destroyed by the quake.

There was relief around the Pacific, meanwhile, as more than 50 countries and territories along an arc from New Zealand to Japan cancelled warnings after their biggest scare since the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

Unlike Haiti, struck by a devastating 7,0-magnitude earthquake on January 12 that killed more than 217 000 people, Chile is one of Latin America’s wealthiest countries and has adapted its defences since a world record quake in 1960.

The epicentre of Saturday’s quake was a few hundred kilometres north of the biggest earthquake on record in May 1960, which had a magnitude of 9,5 and killed between 2 200 and 5 700 people.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who had planned a Latin America tour before the disaster struck, will visit Santiago on Tuesday and plans to meet both Bachelet and Pinera, officials said.—AFP

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