Saturday, February 27, 2010

Scores killed in Chile earthquake

Source: Al Jazeera

A massive earthquake has struck Chile, causing the deaths of at least 78 people and triggering tsunami warnings for across the Pacific ocean.

The 8.8-magnitude earthquake struck early on Saturday near Concepcion, Chile's second largest city.

The earthquake struck 92km northeast of Concepcion at a depth of 63km at 3:34am local time (06:43 GMT).

The quake, which lasted for one minute, damaged buildings and caused blackouts as far away as Santiago, 320km northeast of the epicentre.

Michelle Bachelet, the outgoing president, has declared a "state of catastrophe" and warned that more deaths were possible.

"I want to call on all the people of Chile to remain calm ... There have been some aftershocks, but so far our national organisations are still up and running," she said.

Bachelet also announced the partial evacuation of Easter Island, more than 3,000km away, fearing that it could hit by a tsunami.

Tsunami threat

Two ships carrying aid have been dispatched to Robinson Crusoe Island, part of the Juan Fernandez Archipelago, which has already been hit by huge waves triggered by the earthquake.

"Sea level readings indicate a tsunami was generated. It may have been destructive along coasts near the earthquake epicentre and could also be a threat to more distant coasts," the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre said.

Warnings were issued for across the Pacific from Latine AMerica to the Pacific Rim. It specifically warned the US isalnds of Hawaii could be hit by waves of up to 4.8 metres from about 21:00 GMT.

"Urgent action should be taken to protect lives and property," the centre said in a bulletin. "All shores are at risk no matter which direction they face."

The US west coast tsunami warning centre said it did not expect a tsunami along the west of the US or Canada but was continuing to monitor the situation.

A national emergency official told local radio the Chilean government was evaluating damage in and around Concepcion.

Chilean TV showed images of collapsed homes, a large building completely engulfed in flames and injured people lying in the streets or on stretchers.

It reported that the earthquake had destroyed many roads, making it impossible for vehicles to get through. Electricity and water supplies had been cut.

Phone lines were either down or busy, making confirmation of damage difficult elsewhere, especially further south towards the epicentre.

According to a 2002 census, Concepcion is one of the largest cities in Chile with a population of around 670,000.

'Major seismic event'

The earthquake's magnitude was reported at 8.3 and 8.5, then fixed by the US Geological Survey (USGS) at 8.8, the country's largest in 25 years. The quake was felt in Argentina as well.

The US centre also recorded eight aftershocks, the largest measuring 6.9 magnitude at 08:01 GMT.

Kevin McCue, president of the Australian Earthquake Engineering Society, told Al Jazeera: "An earthquake of this size occurs one every ten years. This quake would have ruptured the earth's surface for about 800km, which is a very long fault line to produce a tsunami.

"I'm surprised it produced such a small tsunami as a result. But everyone is still on alert right across the Pacific."

Randy Baldwin, a geophysicist with the USGS National Earthquake Information Centre, told Al Jazeera an earthquake of this size has the potential to devastate the region.

"This is a significant earthquake with the force to cause significant damage in this region. It is a major seismic event," he said.

In 1960, Chile was hit by the world's biggest earthquake since records dating back to 1900, USGS data shows.

The 9.5 magnitude quake devastated the south-central city of Valdivia, killing 1,655 people and sending a tsunami which battered Easter Island 3,700km off Chile's Pacific seaboard and continued as far as Hawaii, Japan and the Philippines.

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