Tsunami alerts after 8.8 quake rocks Chile

A tsunami races across the Pacific Ocean last night after a devastating 8.8-magnitude earthquake rocked Chile.

WASHINGTON // A tsunami was racing across the Pacific Ocean last night after a devastating 8.8-magnitude earthquake rocked Chile, claiming more than 100 lives and destroying roads and buildings. The US-based Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued a tsunami warning for all countries around the Pacific Rim on Saturday, including South America, Australia and New Zealand, Japan, the Philippines, and Russia. Officials in Hawaii sent boats out to sea and urged residents to move to higher ground.

As of 11pm UAE time a 20 centimetre wave hit New Zealand's eastern Chatham Islands but officials warned much bigger waves three metres high were expected. News reports from Chile described flattened buildings and dazed people walking in the streets in the aftermath of the quake, which struck in the middle of the night off the coast of Maule, as many Chileans were sleeping. Some said the violent shaking lasted for 90 seconds or more.

The full scope of the damage remained unclear. Chilean television showed collapsed bridges, damaged cars and rubble scattered in the streets. Michelle Bachelet, the Chilean president, declared a "state of catastrophe" and warned that the death toll was likely to rise. "With a quake of this size we undoubtedly can't rule out more deaths and probably injuries," she said. She asked her people to remain calm and said the authorities were doing all that they could.

At least 147 people were confirmed dead when The National went to press. The earthquake was the latest seismic activity reported in recent days. Yesterday, Japan's Okinawa island was hit by its biggest seismic jolt in more than half a century when a powerful 7.0 magnitude tremor struck, triggering minor tsunamis. On Thursday tens of thousands of homes were damaged in a 5.1-magnitude quake in China's Yunnan province. And on Friday, a 5.5-magnitude earthquake struck offshore the southern Phillipines

Officials in Chile warned that last night's death toll was likely to rise. "The number of victims could get higher," said the Chilean president-elect Sebastian Pinera, as he offered his condolences to the families of the victims. The quake struck at 3.34am, according to the US Geological Survey, with its epicentre just 113km from Chile's second-largest city, Concepcion, where a 15-story building reportedly collapsed. Some 320km away from the epicentre, in Santiago, the Chilean capital, there were also reports of extensive damage.

The Santiago airport was to be closed for at least the next 24 hours. Eleven aftershocks were reported, five of them measuring 6.0 or above. The rumbling earth was felt as far away as Japan and Argentina, where some buildings were evacuated. The quake comes more than a month after a 7.0-magnitude earthquake devastated the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, killing 200,000 people and leaving the tiny impoverished island nation in tatters.

Chile, however, was expected to fare better because many of the newer buildings there are designed to withstand earthquakes. There have been 13 earthquakes of magnitude 7.0 or greater in Chile since 1973. The quake triggered a tsunami that was expected to hit Pacific coastlines around the world. A three-metre wave was reported to have reached a populated area in the Robinson Crusoe Islands, 660km off the Chilean coast. In Talcahuano, a municipality of Concepcion, a two and a half metre wave was reported to have struck, and video footage showed heavily flooded streets.

The tsunami was expected to reach the Hawaiian Islands in the late morning, and a lower-grade tsunami advisory was in effect for the coast of California and an Alaskan coastal area. Tsunami warning sirens in Hawaii sounded at 6am and were to continue at 30 minute intervals. The waves there were expected to reach as high as four and a half metres, according to some reports. Reports of the destruction in Chile were streaming into Twitter, the social networking website.

"The earthquake was absolutely terrifying," Cecilia Lagos, a Chilean journalist in Santiago, told CNN. "I was sleeping just like almost everybody, and all of the sudden of course I woke up - it got louder and stronger and more intense and faster." Robert Gibbs, the White House Press Secretary said President Barack Obama was closely monitoring the situation, including the potential for a tsunami. "Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Chile, and we stand ready to help in this hour of need."

A US state department spokeswoman, Megan Mattson, said the United States is "committed to helping the people of Chile." "We have reached out to and stand ready to assist the government of Chile as rapidly and effectively as we can," she said. Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, was scheduled to visit Chile and four other South American nations next week. In 1960, a 9.5 magnitude earthquake, the largest ever recorded, struck Chile, killing 1,655 people. That quake also unleashed a tsunami that crossed the Pacific, killing 61 people in Hawaii, Japan, and the Philippines.