A powerful 8.2-magnitude earthquake struck the northern coast of Chile on Tuesday night, leaving at least six people dead and setting off emergency tsunami warnings along the entire Pacific coastal region, most of which were later canceled.
The Chilean government ordered the evacuation of at least 900,000 people along the coast, who were moved to higher ground. The quake, which struck at 8.46pm local time and whose epicenter was around 100 kilometers northwest of the mining port of Iquique near the Peruvian border, sent two-meter-high waves crashing onto the shore.
Emergency officials said the five deaths – four men and one woman in Iquique and nearby Alto Hospicio – were caused by falling walls or people who suffered heart attacks.
At least 60 aftershocks were reported throughout the region.
No major damage had been reported but telephone service and power was cut off in many affected areas.
President Michelle Bachelet, who declared a state of emergency, sent in army troops and security officials to assist with the evacuations and rescue efforts. She later flew to Iquique to inspect the damage.
Interior Minister Rodrigo Peñailillo called on citizens to remain on high ground until the emergency was declared over. He also reported that about 300 female inmates from a women’s penitentiary in Iquique escaped during the commotion. The minister asked residents in the area to remain calm, saying that additional law enforcement officers were being sent to the scene.
In Peru, the quake shook buildings and forced residents to flee their homes in panic in towns and rural communities along the Chilean border. Civil defense authorities reported that an unknown number of people had been injured.
Tsunami warnings issued for as far north as Mexico and as far west as the Society Islands (French Polynesia) were canceled for the most part. But Chilean authorities maintained the warnings for most of the municipalities of Arica, Pisagua, Iquique, Patache, Tocopilla, Mejillones, Dichato, Tomé and Lirquén, as well as Easter Island.
This was the second time Bachelet – who was sworn in last month for a second term – has had to deal with an earthquake disaster. On February 27, 2010 – just days before she was to leave office after her first term – a massive quake measuring 8.8 on Richter scale hit southern Chile, killing 524 people and setting off tsunami warnings throughout the Pacific.