8.8 earthquake hits Chile; tsunami feared throughout eastern Pacific

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BOGOTA, Colombia — The death toll is expected to rise from a devastating earthquake that struck Chile early Saturday morning and President Michelle Bachelet declared parts of her country catastrophe zones.

Interior Minister Edmundo Perez Yoma told reporters at a midday news conference that the magnitude 8.8 quake
with an epicenter 60 miles offshore from the port city of Concepcion
had left at least 122 dead. The death toll was later estimated at 147.

The first television transmission of the damage showed collapsed highway overpasses and buildings in south Santiago,
the capital, and in Concepcion. As many as 30 aftershocks, some of
magnitude 6.0 or higher, continued to strike the region throughout the
day.

Coastal cities throughout the eastern Pacific region from Acapulco to Hawaii were bracing for possible tsunamis.

In Hawaii, civil defense sirens sounded at 6 a.m. local time alerted residents to the expected arrival of a tsunami of 3 feet to 6 feet by midday.

Chile’s Interior
Ministry said ocean surges reaching heights of 10 feet in Juan
Fernandez Islands left three dead and 13 missing. The port city of
Talcahuano was also struck by surges. The Vina del Mar International
Song Festival, taking place near the port city of Valparaiso, was
suspended until further notice.

President-elect Sebastian Pinera,
who takes office in two weeks, told reporters that in addition to
scores of deaths the country had suffered serious damage to its
infrastructure, including highways airports and housing.

This earthquake has delivered a tremendous blow to
Chilean society, Pinera said. “Our government will do everything for
the recovery and to accelerate reconstruction.”

International relief efforts will be stretched thin in Chile, as efforts to deal with the devastation of Haiti’s earthquake in January are still continuing.

The quake in Chile, lasting at least 30 seconds, struck about 3:30 a.m. local time. Residents of Santiago, many of them in their pajamas, poured into the streets. The city’s international airport remained closed Saturday afternoon.

The White House pledged support in Chile’s hour of need, and the State Department said all its personnel in the country had been accounted for.

Yoma said emergency rescue teams were in operation in various cities

Fires broke out in Valparaiso and Concepcion, owing apparently to gas leaks.

Telephone and electric power were out and water
services were all down in many cities for much of Saturday morning, and
communication was problematic.

Television reports showed extensive damage in the Maule region 150 miles south of Santiago. One bridge there, over the Claro River, had collapsed, according to local reports. In Talca, an agricultural and wine zone 150 miles south of Santiago, reported 35 deaths.

Santiago residents reported heavy smoke, and a fire at an unidentified chemical plant raged for much of the day.

Chile was also
the scene of one of the world’s strongest earthquakes ever recorded in
1960 that left hundreds dead. The quakes are caused by the recurring
collision of tectonic plates off the Chilean coastline.

In geologic terms, Chile is on the edge of the so-called circle of fire, a seismically active region bordering the Pacific Ocean
.The activity accrues from the ongoing collision of the Nasca tectonic
plate with the South American plate that produce frequent quakes,
notably the 7.9 magnitude Pisco Peru quake in August 2007 that killed 600.

(c) 2010, Los Angeles Times.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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