Rescuers search for Chile quake survivors; death toll jumps to 708

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BOGOTA, Chile — Rescuers searched for survivors Sunday a day after one of the biggest earthquakes in recorded history rocked Chile, killing more than 700 people while leaving untold numbers missing and 2 million displaced, wounded or otherwise affected.

The death toll jumped Sunday to 708, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet said, nearly doubling as rescue crews reached remote and badly damaged towns.

The 8.8 quake, which hit before dawn Saturday,
toppled buildings, buckled freeways and set off sirens thousands of
miles away as governments scrambled to protect coastal residents from
the ensuing tsunami. Authorities lifted tsunami warnings Sunday after
smaller-than-feared waves washed shores from Southern California to Hawaii and Japan.

Looting broke out Sunday in some of the most heavily damaged areas of Chile,
where residents were without water or electricity. Crowds overran
supermarkets in the port city of Concepcion, which sustained widespread
damage, and were making off with food, water and diapers but also
television sets. Several banks also were hit. Police in armored
vehicles sprayed looters with water cannons and made several arrests,
mostly of young men.

“The people are desperate and say the only way is to come get stuff for themselves,” Concepcion resident Patricio Martinez told reporters. “We have money to buy it, but the big stores are closed, so what are we supposed to do”

Bachelet, following an emergency meeting with her
cabinet Sunday, announced she would send army troops into the
Concepcion area, about 70 miles south of the quake’s offshore
epicenter, to restore order and assist in recovering bodies and
searching for survivors. She previously declared swaths of the country
“catastrophe zones” and Sunday issued an emergency decree for the area
that will be in force for 30 days.

State television reported 350 people were killed in the coastal town of Constitucion, near the epicenter.

With images of Haiti’s
devastation from an earthquake last month still fresh, the world woke
up to a new disaster and fears of another catastrophic toll. But the Chile
quake’s epicenter was relatively deep, at 21.7 miles, and building
codes are strict in a country that 50 years ago was struck by the
biggest earthquake ever recorded: a magnitude 9.5.

Nonetheless, Bachelet said in an address to the
nation Saturday night that a million buildings had been damaged. And
with television stations showing topsy-turvy structures, severed
bridges and highways whose pavement looked as if it had been tilled by
some giant farm machine, the death toll was expected to rise.

Concepcion resident Alberto Rozas said his building began to shake and he grabbed his daughter in terror amid shattering glass and an ungodly roar.

“It was awful,” said Rozas, who lives next to a
15-story apartment building that was reduced to rubble. “The only thing
I did right was throw clothes on the floor so my daughter and I could
escape without ruining our feet. But we’re still covered with cuts.”

As a flurry of 30 aftershocks, some measuring greater than magnitude 6.0, continued to strike the region all day, Chile’s
Interior Ministry said tsunami surges reaching heights of 10 feet hit
the nation’s Juan Fernandez Islands, leaving three people dead and 13
missing.

Memories of the tsunami that was unleashed on Southeast Asia and around the Indian Ocean five years ago haunted governments across the Pacific on Saturday. In Hawaii,
100,000 people were evacuated to higher ground, and the U.S. Navy’s
Pacific Fleet sent four warships out to sea as a precaution against
damage near shore at Pearl Harbor.

A series of small 3-foot tsunamis hit Hawaii’s Big Island shortly after 1 p.m., churning up sediment but causing no apparent damage. Early Sunday, Japan’s
Meteorological Agency warned a “major” tsunami of up to 10 feet could
hit northern coastal areas, although initial waves that reached
outlying islands posed little threat.

The U.S. moved briskly to offer assistance to Chile. President Obama spoke with Bachelet to offer condolences, praising the country’s quick response and reiterating the United States’ readiness to aid in rescue and recovery.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she planned to visit the region Sunday. “Our hemisphere comes
together in times of crisis, and we will stand side by side with the
people of Chile in this emergency,” she said.

Some observers, however, worried international relief efforts could be stretched thin by the continuing response to the Haiti earthquake, which left more than 215,000 people dead and a million homeless.

In Chile, television images showed collapsed highway overpasses and buildings in southern Santiago,
the capital, and in Concepcion, 300 miles to the south. Bachelet was
reported to be headed to the region to inspect the damage.

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

“This earthquake has delivered a tremendous blow to
Chilean society,” Pinera said, adding he would request emergency funds
totaling 2 percent of the budget to help rebuild. “Our government will
do everything for the recovery and to accelerate reconstruction.”

Santiago’s
international airport will be closed at least through Monday, officials
said. Although the runways are in good condition, the control tower and
customs facilities suffered extensive damage, officials said.

Key structures in Santiago, including ministry buildings, suffered heavy damage, said Education Minister Monica Jimenez.
Government employees will be asked to stay home Monday as officials
assesses structural safety, she said. Public schools that were to have
reopened Monday after summer vacation are now scheduled to reopen March 8.

The quake, lasting 30 seconds or more, struck about 3:30 a.m. Saturday. Santiago residents, many of them in their pajamas, poured into the streets.

A chemical fire at a factory raged out of control
and there was smoke in much of the city. Telephone service and
electricity were still out in one-third of the capital as of the
afternoon, and communication was problematic because of the collapse of
several cellphone towers.

Santiago faces possible mass transit chaos, with the city’s subway system closed indefinitely while the tracks are inspected.

Bachelet urged drivers to not use major thoroughfares because traffic lights were out and many pedestrian bridges had collapsed.

Major damage was reported in Concepcion, the
country’s second-largest city and the one closest to the epicenter.
Several fires due to gas leaks were reported. A multi-story building
also collapsed.

The mayor of Concepcion, Jacqueline van Rysselberghe, described her city as “Dante-esque” in the aftermath of the quake, saying two bridges over the Biobio River had collapsed and others were damaged.

The city is home to one of the largest universities
in the South American nation, Universidad de Concepcion, a public
school with a decidedly liberal student body. Its grounds are often the
site of socialist protests.

(c) 2010, Los Angeles Times.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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