A massive magnitude 8.8 earthquake rocked Chile early Saturday, killing at least 122 people and triggering tsunami warnings for the entire Pacific basin.
The quake’s epicenter was located off the coast of Maule, 325 kilometres southwest of the capital of Santiago, at a depth of 35 kilometres, the U.S. Geological Survey reported. It struck at 3:34 a.m. (1:34 a.m. ET), when most people were sleeping. The earthquake lasted a total of 90 seconds.
“This is a major event. This happened near some very populated areas,” said Randy Baldwin, a geophysicist with USGS. “With an 8.8 you expect damage to the population in the area.” (CNN)
The earth’s rumbling was felt by millions in Chile and in parts of Argentina as well. Some buildings in the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires, were evacuated. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued a tsunami warning, the highest level of a tsunami alert, for the entire Pacific region, including Hawaii and places as far away as Russia and Japan. California and Alaska are under a tsunami advisory. The earliest estimated arrival for a wave that could affect Hawaii was 12:46 a.m. local (6.46 ET). But evacuations of coastal areas were to begin at 6 a.m. (12 p.m. ET). The quake struck at the end of the Chilean summer vacation, with hundreds of thousands of people expected to be traveling home this weekend.
The full extent of the damage was not yet known, although there were reports of collapsed buildings and hundreds of people in the streets. The ceiling of a parking lot in the fashionable Las Condes neighborhood of Santiago came crashing down, crushing at least 50 cars. Television images showed smashed windows, partially collapsed ceilings and pedestrian walkways destroyed. Chilean television also showed images of destroyed buildings and damage cars, with rubble-strewn streets. In Santiago, modern buildings are built to withstand earthquakes, but many older ones were heavily damaged, including the Nuestra Senora de la Providencia church, whose bell tower collapsed. An apartment building’s two-level parking lot also flattened onto the ground floor, smashing about 40 cars whose alarms and horns rang incessantly.
The capital lost electricity and basic services including water and telephones. Regional hospitals had suffered damage; some were evacuated. Communications were still spotty around the centre of the quake, some 112 km from Concepción, Chile’s second-largest city, where more than 200,000 people live along the Bio Bio River, and 100 kilometres from the ski town of Chillan, a gateway to Andean ski resorts that was destroyed in a 1939 earthquake. Phone lines were down in the city as of 7:30 a.m. and no reports were coming out of that area. Several hospitals have been evacuated due to earthquake damage.
The Santiago airport was shut down and a major bridge connecting northern and southern Chile was rendered inoperable. At least one car flipped upside-down. Eduardo de Canto, the head of airport operations in Santiago, told Chile’s TVN that the terminal in the airport is severely damaged, although he said runways were operational.
Santiago resident Leo Perioto jumped out of bed in his apartment at the top of a six-story building. “The whole building was shaking,” he said. “The windows were wobbling a lot. We could feel the walls moving from side to side.” (CNN)
Glass shattered at the Santiago Marriott Hotel, but there appeared to be no structural damage, said Alessandro Perez. Anita Herrea at the Hotel Kennedy in Santiago said electricity was out and guests were nervous. “Our hotel is built for this,” she said. In Chile this happens many times.” (CNN)
In the coastal city of Vina del Mar, the earthquake struck just as people were leaving a disco, Julio Alvarez told Radio Cooperativa in Santiago. “It was very bad, people were screaming, some people were running, others appeared paralyzed. I was one of them.” (CBC)
“An earthquake of this size has the potential to generate a destructive tsunami that can strike coastlines near the epicentre within minutes and more distant coastlines within hours,” the National Weather Service said in a statement. (CNN)
Numerous aftershocks were felt within hours of the initial quake, the U.S. Geological Survey said. Eyewitnesses reported more than two dozen aftershocks, including two measuring magnitude 6.2 and 6.9. In the hours after the tremor, the U.S. Geological Survey reported 11 aftershocks.
Already, some boat owners were moving their boats away from the coast, to avoid damage when the waves arrive. Beaches will be closed and pre-determined evacuation zones in certain coastal areas will be cleared.
“Get off the shore line. We are closing all the beaches and telling people to drive out the area,” John Cummings, Oahu Civil Defence 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.
Chilean President Michelle Bachelet said she expected the death toll to rise. Bachelet declared areas of catastrophe, similar to a state of emergency that will allow her to rush in aid. She said the town of Chillan – which was destroyed by a killer quake in 1939 – was one of the worst affected. “I urge people in coastal zones to move to higher ground,” Bachelet said at a morning news conference. (CNN) The Associated Press quoted Mrs. Bachelet as saying that a huge wave had swept into a populated area in the Robinson Crusoe Islands, 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. “We’re doing everything we can with all the resources we have,” she told the New York Times.
A Department of Homeland Security official said early Saturday that the Federal Emergency Management Agency was monitoring the situation and was in contact with state emergency personnel in Hawaii, which is under a tsunami warning. But the decision to evacuate coastal areas and handling this evacuation is the responsibility of state and local officials in Hawaii, the Homeland Security official said. 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 in Chile. The tsunami was expected to arrive in Hawaii at 11:20 a.m., or 4:20 p.m. Eastern time.
The Hilo International Airport on the big island of Hawaii, which is near the southern coast where the tsunami is expected to hit first, has been closed, she said. All crews aboard vessels and on the ground in state ports have been ordered to evacuate, she said. A warning siren sounded at 6 a.m. local time, alerting residents to tune into their local television and radio stations for instructions.
“The evacuation zones are predesignated in telephone books. We have maps and predesignated tsunami zones,” said Shelly Ichishita, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Defence Civil Defence Division. “It’s based on historical data showing they are susceptible to tsunamis.” (The Washington Post)
“Six feet is a lot. Tsunamis have a lot of force behind them,” said Jenifer Rhoades, Tsunami Program Manager for the National Weather Service. (The Washington Post)
Statewide television news was reporting that the southeast areas of all the islands would likely be the most impacted, 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 show that the impact will be greatest in spots such as Hilo Bay on Hawaii, the waves will likely be only about two to three feet.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre issued a warning for Chile and Peru, and a less-urgent tsunami watch for Ecuador, Columbia, Panama, Costa Rica and Antarctica. “Sea-level readings indicate a tsunami was generated. It may have been destructive along coasts near the earthquake epicentre and could also be a threat to more distant coasts,” the tsunami warning centre said. It did not expect a tsunami along the west coasts of the U.S. or Canada but was continuing to monitor the situation. (CBC) The White House said Saturday morning that it was closely monitoring the situation, “including the potential for a tsunami,” said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs. (CNN)
A tsunami is essentially a wave. But it will look like a rise in sea level, or more like a food, he said, and takes place very quickly. An initial wave will come in and then follow up waves will arrive, most likely 20 or so 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,” Mr. Shiro said. (The New York Times)
The last time there was a Pacific wide tsunami warning – as has now taken place – was in 164, Mr. Shiro said. There has 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 event, 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.” (The New York Times)
A lower-grade tsunami advisory was in effect for the coast of California and an Alaskan coastal area from Kodiak to Attu islands. That same advisory includes British Columbia. It says people in low-lying coastal areas should move out of the water, away from the beaches and out of the harbours and marinas. Experts predict the first wave to arrive at 15:11 PT (18:11 ET) along the southern B.C. coastline.
Australia’s southeast coast is under a tsunami watch and authorities are telling people to stay away from beaches. An emergency services official said the potential impact of the waves for Australia will become clearer once the tsunami reaches Hawaii.
The Joint Australian Tsunami Warning Center said reported a “potential tsunami threat” to New South Wales state, Queensland state, Lord Howe Island and Norfolk Island. (CBC)
Lying in the mountainous Andean coast, Chile has a history of deadly earthquakes, according to the USGS. Since 1973, there have been 13 quakes of magnitude 7.0 or higher. Saturday’s epicentre was just a few kilometres north of the largest earthquake recorded in the world: a magnitude 9.5 quake in May 1960 that killed 1,655 and unleashed a tsunami that crossed the Pacific.