Amid the rubble, the looting begins

Rescuers struggle to free survivors from debris and police use tear gas to subdue hungry residents who say stealing is their 'only option'.

CONCEPCION, CHILE // Rescue teams used shovels and sledgehammers yesterday to find the survivors and victims of a huge earthquake that unleashed a Pacific tsunami and triggered looting by desperate residents. The death toll from Saturday's quake, one of the world's most powerful in a century, rose to more than 700 yesterday. Homes and roads were destroyed, dealing a heavy blow to infrastructure in one of Latin America's most stable economies.

But fears that the tsunami, which fanned out across the Pacific, would bring further devastation subsided after the waves turned out to be smaller than predicted. In the hard-hit city of Concepcion, about 500km south of the capital Santiago, about 100 people were feared trapped in a collapsed apartment block where rescuers worked through the night to find survivors. Police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse a crowd of looters carrying off food and electrical appliances from a supermarket. Television images showed people stuffing groceries and other goods into shopping trolleys and looting spread to other stores as police looked on.

"People have gone days without eating," said Orlando Salazar, one of the looters at the supermarket. "The only option is to come here and get stuff for ourselves." Concepcion's mayor, Jacqueline van Rysselberghe, said the situation was getting "out of control" due to shortages of basic supplies, La Tercera reported on its website. "We've got a very complicated situation and the people feel very vulnerable," she told local radio, adding that the looting was "totally unjustifiable."

Two million people in Chile were affected by the 8.8-magnitude earthquake, said President Michelle Bachelet, who added that it would take officials several days to evaluate the "enormous quantity of damage". The quake damaged or destroyed 1.5 million homes, buckled roads and toppled bridges, posing a daunting reconstruction challenge for President-elect Sebastian Pinera who takes office in two weeks.

Crushed cars, fallen power lines and rubble from wrecked buildings littered the streets of Concepcion, which has about 670,000 inhabitants and lies 115km south-west of the quake's epicentre. A string of strong aftershocks have rocked the country and one shook buildings in the capital, Santiago, early yesterday. Thousands of Concepcion residents camped out in tents or makeshift shelters, fearing fresh tremors.

Firefighters used drills and shovels to search for signs of life in the rubble and battled to free dozens of people believed trapped in a collapsed apartment building. "We spent the whole night working, smashing through walls to find survivors. The biggest problem is fuel, we need fuel for our machinery and water for our people," Commander Marcelo Plaza said. The economic damage from the quake could be between US$15 billion (Dh55bn) and $30bn, risk assessor Eqecat said.

Some economists predicted a deep impact on Chile's economy after the quake damaged its industrial and agricultural sectors in the worst-hit regions, possibly putting pressure on its currency. Two major copper mines shut down by the quake were due to resume operations on Sunday, but analysts feared power outages could still curtail supplies from the world's top producer. Chile's fourth-largest mine El Teniente, which accounts for more than seven per cent of national output, and the nearby Andina mine would both reopen, mining officials said on Sunday.

Saturday's quake triggered tsunami waves that killed at least four people on Chile's Juan Fernandez islands and caused serious damage to the port town of Talcahuano, flooding streets and lifting fishing boats out of the sea. On the other side of the Pacific, Japan's north-eastern coast registered waves of up to 1.2 metres, but officials later lowered the state of alert. Hundreds of thousands of people in Japan, New Zealand, the Philippines and Russia's far eastern Kamchatka Peninsula were told to evacuate for fear of a tsunami caused by the Chilean quake, but there were no immediate reports of damage.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii warned 53 nations and territories of the tsunami. After the centre lifted its warning, some countries kept their own watches in place as a precaution. In Japan, the biggest wave hit the northern island of Hokkaido. There were no immediate reports of damage from the 1.2-metre wave, though some piers were briefly flooded. As it crossed the Pacific, the tsunami dealt populated areas - including Hawaii - only a glancing blow.

The tsunami raised fears Pacific nations could suffer from disastrous waves like those that killed 230,000 people around the Indian Ocean in December 2004, which happened with little-to-no warning. Officials said the opposite occurred after the Chile quake: they overstated their predictions of the size of the waves and the threat. "We expected the waves to be bigger in Hawaii, maybe about 50 per cent bigger than they actually were," said Gerard Fryer, a geophysicist for the warning centre. "We'll be looking at that."

* Agencies