An 8.2 magnitude earthquake destroyed much of the northern coast of Chile on Tuesday, April 1. The size of the earthquake triggered multiple landslides, a power outage in the surrounding areas and a massive tsunami. Only six people have been reported dead, but authorities have not ruled out the possibility that others could have been killed in older structures in remote communities that were not easily or immediately accessible.
The U.S. Geological Survey announced that the earthquake, with a depth of 12.5 miles, reportedly struck around 8:46 p.m. local time, 60 miles northwest of Iquique.
The earthquake was followed by at least 10 strong aftershocks, including a 6.2 tremor. Shortly after the 6.2 aftershock struck, Chile’s ONEMI emergency office and navy issued a tsunami alert and ordered a precautionary evacuation of low-lying areas for the country’s whole 2,500-mile Pacific coastline.
The earliest known activity began with a strong magnitude 6.7 quake on March 16, which caused more than 100,000 people to briefly evacuate low-lying areas. Hundreds of smaller quakes followed in the previous weeks, keeping people on alert as scientists claimed there was no way to tell if the unusual string of tremors was actually serious.
Chilean President Michelle Bachelet deployed hundreds of anti-riot police and soldiers to prevent looting and to round up escaped prisoners. About 300 prisoners were said to have escaped from the northern port city of Iquique in the immediate aftermath.
Many roads in northern Chile remained blocked this past week by landslides, causing traffic jams for the people trying to leave the coast. In addition, waves reaching up to 6 ½ feet repeatedly washed over the city. Despite these setbacks, coastal residents remained calm as they moved inland.
A tsunami alert was issued by the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center for Latin America’s entire Pacific coast. Evacuations were ordered in Peru when the waves two meters above normal forced about 200 people to flee the seaside town of Boca del Rio.
However, Col. Enrique Blanco, the regional police chief of Tacna, a Peruvian city of 300,000 near the Chilean border, stated there were no injuries or major damage. “The lights went out briefly, but were reestablished,” Blanco said.
The tsunami after Tuesday night’s quake caused the sea to rise eight feet, 2 ½ meters, in Iquique, which was enough to sink and damage many fishing boats. Iquique’s fishermen searched through the wreckage April 2 in an attempt to assess what it will cost to fix all of the damages.
The mandatory evacuation on April 2 lasted 10 hours in Iquique and Arica, the cities closest to the epicenter, and kept 900,000 people out of their homes along Chile’s coast. The order to leave was spread through cellphone text messages and Twitter, and reinforced by blaring sirens in neighborhoods where people regularly practice earthquake drills.
Chile’s evacuation order was lifted at around 2 a.m. Thursday. The coast also was evacuated for several hours after Tuesday’s quake, and for the night in the north, although the tsunami proved small.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued several tsunami warnings, but canceled all of them by early Wednesday. Tsunami watches that extended as far north as Mexico’s Pacific coast were called off as well.
According to Fabrizio Guzman, World Vision International emergency communications manager in Chile, “Many people are fearful after experiencing the powerful earthquake in 2010, so they immediately fled for higher ground when they heard the tsunami warning.”
“There have been multiple aftershocks and communications have been cut off in many of the affected areas,” Guzman added, “So, people are waiting in the dark hills not knowing what is to come, and hoping they will be able to return to their homes safely,” he added.
According to experts, Chile is one of the world’s most earthquake-prone countries due to the Nazca tectonic plate plunging beneath the South American plate, pushing the towering Andes Cordillera to much higher altitudes. The strongest earthquake ever recorded–a magnitude 9.5 tremor–struck Chile in 1960 and killed more than 5,000 people.
Editor’s note: Information from CNN and the Huffington Post was used in this report.