SANTIAGO // Thousands of Chileans began returning to their homes yesterday, a day after at least six people died when a powerful 8.2-magnitude earthquake struck northern Chile’s Pacific coast.
Tsunami waves of more than two metres lashed the shore in the aftermath and panicked residents poured into the streets, with more than 900,000 people along Chile’s coast heeding government orders to leave their homes and seek higher ground.
Chilean television showed sagging roofs, broken windows and shelves and merchandise on the floor at shopping centres in Iquique, the city closest to the earthquake’s epicentre.
Thousands of people had slept in the open on hills surrounding the city during the night, waiting out a tsunami alert.
Similar warnings to leave homes and workplaces were issued up the Pacific coast of South America and into Central America.
About 10 hours after the two-minute quake, the Chilean government lifted what remained of the nationwide tsunami alert.
The Chilean interior minister, Rodrigo Penailillo, asked people returning home to stay on alert, as sea levels were expected to remain as much as a metre higher than usual.
He said six people – four men and two women – were killed in Iquique and the nearby Alto Hospicio municipality.
Some fires broke out, roads were damaged and power was knocked out in the northern city of Arica, although there was no widespread destruction, said the national office of emergency of the interior ministry.
“The street lights were out, people ran terrified. After the earthquake there were several aftershocks,” Veronica Castillo said from Arica, 1,600 kilometres north of the capital Santiago.
In Iquique, fisherman reported that 80 boats had been destroyed, sunk or floated out to sea.
The city’s airport control tower was damaged and flights to Iquique, Arica and the northern city of Antofagasta were cancelled. Landslides hit the road linking Iquique with the rest of the country.
Chile said there had been 17 aftershocks so far. More were expected as some energy from the quake zone had yet to be released, said Sergio Barrientos of the seismological service at the University of Chile.
President Michelle Bachelet declared parts of the north of the country disaster zones, and she travelled to Arica and Iquique to survey the damage and lead relief efforts.
She said soldiers would be dispatched to the areas to prevent looting and disorder from breaking out as they did after a deadly 8.8-magnitude earthquake in 2010.
More than 500 people died and US$30 billion (Dh110bn) in damage was wrought in that tremor.
In Iquique, about 300 prisoners escaped from a jail amid the chaos triggered by Tuesday’s earthquake.
A total of 39 of them have been recaptured, the interior ministry said.
The quake struck at 8.46pm at a depth of 10 kilometres, 83km from Iquique, said the United States Geological Survey.
Chile’s National Seismological Centre, however, placed it four times deeper.
The Hawaii-based Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre issued an alert for residents living along more than 4,800km of coastline in South and Central America.
It said waves of more than two meters had been generated.
The effect of the offshore earthquake went beyond Chile, with Ecuador, Peru and Honduras also issuing tsunami warnings.
In Peru, nine minor injuries were documented and damage to homes in southern villages was reported.
Tremors were felt as far inland as Bolivia, while across the Pacific in Indonesia, officials said that the Asian nation could be hit by waves of up to half a metre from the Chilean earthquake.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre also issued a warning for Colombia and Panama, and “watches” for at least six other countries.
The coastal area that bore the brunt of the earthquake has been the scene of numerous tremors in recent days.
On Sunday, a 6.0-magnitude earthquake struck, followed by at least two moderate aftershocks.
* Agence France-Presse