Devastating Earthquake Strikes Chile

The New York Times (Link) - Alexei Barrionuevo & Liz Robbins (February 27, 2010)

A deadly, 8.8-magnitude earthquake struck central Chile early Saturday, collapsing buildings, shattering major bridges and highways across a long swath of the country, and sending tsunami warnings along the entire Pacific basin.

Chile�s TVN cable news channel reported 122 deaths less than 12 hours after the quake struck. The death toll was expected to rise, particularly around Concepci�n, Chile�s second-largest metropolitan area, which is roughly 70 miles from the quake�s center.

There, cars were overturned, rubble fell into the cracked streets and a 15-story building collapsed, wire services and Chilean news media reported. In the capital of Santiago, about five hours to the north and about 200 miles from the epicenter, frightened residents felt the city shake for nearly 90 seconds.

As more than two dozen significant aftershocks struck the region, President Michelle Bachelet declared a �state of catastrophe.� Major airports and seaports were reported out of operation across the central region, Chilean officials said.

The Associated Press quoted Mrs. Bachelet as saying that a huge wave had swept into a populated area in the Robinson Crusoe Island, 410 miles off the Chilean coast, but there were no immediate reports of major damage there. Those reports bore out early fears that a major tsunami was on its way across the Pacific, and the first hemisphere-wide tsunami warning since 1964 was issued all along the basin, according to monitors in Hawaii.

In Hawaii, officials were preparing to evacuate low-lying tourism areas and scheduled a statewide tsunami alert hours ahead of the tsunami swell�s expected arrival around 11:20 a.m.

The earthquake struck at 3:34 a.m. in central Chile, centered roughly 200 miles southwest of Santiago, at a depth of 22 miles, the United States Geological Survey reported.

Phone lines were down in Concepci�n as of 7:30 a.m., and communications out of the area remained spotty for hours after the earthquake. The quake was vastly more powerful than the magnitude 7.0 earthquake that caused widespread damage in Haiti on Jan. 12, killing at least 230,000, earthquake experts reported on CNN International.

The United States Geological Survey and witnesses reported more than two dozen significant aftershocks.

�We have had a huge earthquake,� Mrs. Bachelet said from an emergency response center in an appeal for Chileans to remain calm. �We�re doing everything we can with all the resources we have.�

Mrs. Bachelet said that the government had sent three emergency response teams to coastal areas. �Without a doubt, with a quake of this kind, of this size, of this magnitude, we can�t rule out that there are other deaths and probably injuries,� Mrs. Bachelet told reporters.

Users of Facebook and Twitter reported that the quake was felt in many places across the continent, including Argentina and Brazil. The quake struck at the end of the Chilean summer vacation, with hundreds of thousands of people expected to be traveling back home this weekend.

The NOAA Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued a warning for Chile and Peru, and a less-urgent tsunami watch for Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica and Antarctica. The White House said Saturday morning that it 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,� Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said.

State Department officials said that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who had been planning a trip to South America beginning on Monday, was seeking to make contact with Mrs. Bachelet, with whom she has long had warm personal relations.

The officials said United States emergency response teams were on alert but waiting for specific assistance requests from Chile before deploying.

Evacuation alarms sounded at 6 a.m. Saturday in vulnerable coastal areas in Hawaii, as the region prepares for what federal officials say could be a dangerous, but most likely not catastrophic, tsunami to hit the islands in the aftermath of the earthquake.

Statewide television news was reporting that the southeast areas of all the islands would likely be the most affected, which include the heavy tourist zones of Waikiki, and Poipu on Kauai. News reports said that a corridor to the airport on Oahu was being established, and that visitors should go to at least the third floor of their hotels.

Brian R. Shiro, a geophysicist at NOAA Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Ewa Beach, Hawaii, said that computer models showed that the effect would be greatest in spots like Hilo Bay on Hawaii Island and Kahului Harbor in Maui.

In those areas, the tsunami waves could reach as high as 6 to 10 feet, Mr. Shiro said. Elsewhere in Hawaii, the waves will likely be only about two to three feet.

Already, some boat owners were moving their boats away from the coast, to avoid damage when the waves arrive. Beaches will be closed and predetermined evacuation zones in certain coastal areas will be cleared.

Tourists staying in modern, high-rise resort hotels will be safe, Mr. Shiro said, as long as they are above the third floor. Anyone in the coastal areas should listen to directions offered from the local authorities.

�Get off the shore line. We are closing all the beaches and telling people to drive out of the area,� John Cummings, the Oahu Civil Defense spokesman, told Reuters. Buses will patrol beaches and take people to parks in a voluntary process expected to last five hours, Reuters reported, adding that more than an hour before sirens were due to sound, lines of cars snaked for blocks from gas stations in Honolulu.

Over all, the episode should pass in Hawaii without widespread, catastrophic damage or major loss of life, Mr. Shiro said.

�We are taking it very seriously,� Mr. Shiro said. �But this is not a big one.�

A tsunami is essentially a wave. But it will look like a rise in sea level, or more like a flood, he said, and it takes place very quickly. An initial wave will come in and then follow up waves will arrive, most likely about 20 minutes later, in a pattern that could continue for several hours.

�The waves are so big that to the observer it looks like a very big tide,� he said.

There have been past regional warnings in Hawaii, such as in 1964, that passed with no tsunami impact at all. But tsunamis historically have caused major damage and loss of life in Hawaii, most recently in 1975, when two people were killed in one episode, Mr. Shiro said.

�So far, the models and based on the information we have, in Hawaii, most shores will experience two to three feet, which is not that big,� he said. �But you should still avoid swimming or surfing.�

Lying along the mountainous Andean coast, Chile has long been at risk to major earthquakes. The largest earthquake ever recorded � a 9.5-magnitude one in 1960 � struck the same area as Saturday�s quake, killing 1,655 people and leaving two million homeless. The resulting tsunami reached across the Pacific, killing people as far away as Hawaii and Japan.