A day after an 8.8-magnitude earthquake struck off the Chilean coast, 708 people have been confirmed dead and the death toll is likely to rise, President Michelle Bachelet said in a televised address on Sunday.
AFP - Chile's earthquake toll soared past 700 on Sunday as rescuers raced to find survivors and the grim extent of the disaster emerged in coastal areas where homes were washed away by a giant wave.
President Michelle Bachelet said she expected the number of deaths to increase further, while her government admitted it had erred by failing to warn Chileans about the tsunami risk following Saturday's 8.8-magnitude quake.
"There was a mistake," said Defense Minister Francisco Vidal. The navy "made a mistake by not issuing a tsunami alert."
A giant wave generated by the quake engulfed seaside towns, washing away entire homes and leaving desperate residents 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 six meters (20 feet) high, Carlos Palma told AFP, as he tried to salvage belongings in the seaside town of Penco.
The mayor of Chile's devastated second city of Concepcion pleaded urgently for help as rescuers with heat detectors hunted scores of people believed to be trapped in a 15-story apartment block toppled on its back by the quake.
Police fired tear-gas and water cannons to try to disperse looters there, some of whom dragged shopping trollies full of basic 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."
Bachelet, who is due to hand over power to her successor Sebastian Pinera on March 11, put the toll Sunday at 708 and said the government was beginning to distribute food and vital aid to the shell-shocked population.
Aftershocks continued to rattle the country with alarming regularity -- more than 115 were recorded in the first 30 hours after the quake, one a powerful 6.1-magnitude striking at 8:25 am local time (1125 GMT).
Residents in the capital Santiago awoke after an anxious night spent sleeping out-of-doors, fearful that badly damaged buildings could topple on their heads.
"It would be crazy for us to go back inside. This is going to fall at any moment," Mary, sleeping a few feet from her home alongside her husband and three sons, told AFP.
Some two million Chileans, or one eighth of the entire population, are estimated to have been affected by Saturday's quake, the seventh largest ever recorded.
"The power of nature has again struck our country," she said, declaring six of long-and-narrow Chile's 15 regions "catastrophe zones."
Main highways were sliced in two by giant fissures and bridges and flyovers (overpass) lay in crumpled heaps and at twisted angles, unpassable and going nowhere.
So far Chile has resisted offers of aid pouring in from around the world, with Foreign Minister Mariano Fernandez insisting that a proper damage assessment is carried out first.
Officials said 1.5 million houses and buildings were destroyed or badly damaged. The historic center of the town of Curico was said to be about 90 percent 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 canceled warnings after their biggest alert since the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
Japan evacuated more than 320,000 people as it prepared for the worst, but fears a massive wave had been generated that could cause death and destruction on the scale of 2004 Asia tsunami proved unfounded.
Big waves did crash into French Polynesia, roaring across the Pacific at jetspeed, but by the time they hit Japan up to 24 hours after the quake they were little more than one-meter at their highest.
It was central Chile that bore the brunt of the tsunami damage and there were surreal scenes in the port of Talcahuano, near Concepcion, where trawlers carried inland lay marooned next to abandoned cars in the town square.
Waves of up to three meters (10 feet) also killed at least five people on the Robinson Crusoe islands out in the Pacific with several others reported missing. Bachelet dispatched two aid ships to remote archipelago.
Unlike Haiti, struck by a devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake on January 12 which killed 217,000 people, Chile is one of Latin America's wealthiest countries and has adapted its defenses since a world record quake in 1960.
But the total value of economic damage is still likely to range between 15 billion and 30 billion dollars, or 10-15 percent of Chile's real gross domestic product, the US risk modeling firm EQECAT predicted.
The epicenter of Saturday's quake was a few hundred miles north of the biggest earthquake on record, a 9.5-magnitude monster in May 1960 that killed between 2,200 and 5,700 people.
Chile's earthquake in pictures
Chile was hit by a powerful 8.8-magnitude earthquake early on Saturday morning local time. The epicentre was 115 kilometres from Concepcion, the country's second-largest city, which was ablaze all night long. (Photo credit: TV Chile)
The quake hit at 3:34 am local time (7:34 pm GMT). The capital city, Santiago, was plunged into darkness and telecommunications systems went down. (Photo credit tweetpic: @josegremeza)
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center announced tsunami alerts for Chile and Peru, and called for vigilance in Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica and the Antarctic. (Photo credit tweetpic: @emitouuu)
The country's infrastructure sustained major damage and Santiago's airport was closed down. (Photo credit: TV Chile)
"We continue to assess the situation," Interior Minister Edmundo Perez Yomato said, in discussing the extent of damage to homes and infrastructure. (Credit: AFP)
More than 100 deaths have been confirmed by authorities so far. Chile was also the site of the strongest earthquake ever recorded, a 9.5-magnitude quake in May 1960. (Photo credit tweetpic: @pamelapalmaz)
Date created : 2010-02-28