Aftershocks Rock Chile During Presidential Inauguration

A series of strong aftershocks from last month’s devastating quake rocked Chile on Thursday as a new president was sworn into office and immediately urged coastal residents to move to higher ground in case of a Tsunami. The aftershock, with a magnitude of 6.9, was nearly as strong as the quake that devastated Haiti’s  capital on Jan. 12. There were no immediate reports of damage or injuries.

It occurred along the same fault line, said geophysicist Don Blakeman at the U.S. Geological Survey in Golden, Colorado. The first quake struck 125 kilometres west-southwest of Santiago and was measured at a depth of 10 kilometres. The USGS initially estimated the aftershock’s magnitude at 7.2.

A second earthquake – with an initial magnitude of 6.9, struck moments later. It was about 143 km southwest of Santiago, the USGS said. The magnitude-6.9 aftershock is the strongest since the day of the Feb. 27 magnitude-8.8 quake. The third was about 138 km southwest of Santiago.

“When we get quakes in the 8 range, we would expect to see maybe a couple of aftershocks in the 7 range,” he said. Mr. Blakeman said Chile now can expect to feel “aftershocks of the aftershock…. It’s not a sign of anything different happening. But what does occur when you get these large aftershocks, typically we have a whole series of aftershocks again,” he added. (The Globe & Mail)

The Chilean Navy issued a tsunami warning while the U.S. Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said the aftershocks were too small to cause dangerous waves beyond Chile’s central coast. The government’s emergency office – much criticized for failing to issue a tsunami alert that might have saved hundreds of lives from the towering waves that followed the initial quake – urged Chileans to seek higher ground, even though the epicenter of Thursday’s biggest shock was inland. The navy lifted the alert a few hours later except for Easter Island, where it remains in effect.

The PTWC said in a statement that “a destructive Pacific-wide tsunami is not expected” as a result of the quakes, and that there is no tsunami threat to Hawaii. However, the center also said that “earthquakes of this size sometimes generate local tsunamis that can be destructive along coasts located within” about 100 km of the epicenter. (CNN)

Rolando Santos, senior vice president and general manager of CNN Chile, said he and his colleagues felt one of the quakes. “I can tell you within our newsroom in Santiago, which is state of the art in terms of seismic construction, it shook for more than 45 seconds,” he said. He said that he told staffers to get under desks and that three people bursts into tears. In the last two days, people had kind of gotten used to aftershocks, but “there was no question this one got everyone’s attention,” he said. (CNN)

President Sebastian Pinera, 60, was inaugurated at a congressional building in coastal Valparaiso, 120 kilometres west of Santiago. He was inaugurated at about 12:15 p.m. local time, roughly 20 minutes after the second quake. He entered the hall of Congress to loud applause, shaking hands with politicians and dignitaries before swearing his oath as president. When the aftershock hit, the building was evacuated as a precaution. The seven aftershocks strongly swayed buildings, shook windows and cent frightened Chileans streaming into the street. The planned dinner was cancelled and the whole event scaled back out of respect for victims of the quake.

The National Congress building was evacuated following the aftershock. Bolivian President Evo Morales seemed briefly disoriented and Peru’s Alan Garcia joked that it gave them “a moment to dance.” (The Globe & Mail)

Mr. Pinera said there had been “significant damage” in Rancagua, a city almost 100 km south of the capital close to the epicenter of the largest aftershock, but there were no immediate reports of injuries. (BBC) “We’re going to send the necessary armed forces to guarantee citizens’ safety,” he promised. (CNN)

BBC reader Ian Hutcheon, from San Vicente, 45 km south of Rancauga, described Thursday’s aftershock as “very severe”.

“I was in a bank when it hit and there was mayhem, panic and chaos,” he said. “People rushed into the street. I saw some people being helped out of the opposite buildings with blankets over their heads but I am not sure if they were hurt or just being comforted. I also saw that some houses that were badly damaged in the big quake have no collapsed.” (BBC)

Rancagua Mayor Eduardo Soto said that no fatalities were immediately reported and that the biggest worry was damage to homes, CNN Chile reported. Pinera said Thursday afternoon that he would declare the area a catastrophe zone.

Outgoing president Michelle Bachelet says she’s leaving Chile in good shape in the wake of the February quake, handing off the government to the first right-wing president to be elected in 52 years. Bachelet was highly popular in Chile and was the country’s first woman president.

“I’m leaving office with sadness for the suffering of our people,” Bachelet said in her farewell address, “but also with my head held high, satisfied with what we have accomplished.” (BBC)

Mr. Pinera said he would go right to work. The billionaire investor, Harvard-trained economist and airline executive with little patience for bureaucracy planned a working visit Thursday to the coastal city of Constitution, where the tsunami destroyed the scenic downtown, and a late-night Cabinet session.

On election night, he had vowed to make Chile “the best country in the world,” spending billions to accelerate economic growth, creating a million jobs in four years and combat crime, among other things. Now, reconstruction is his top priority. (The Globe & Mail)

“We won’t be the government of the earthquake, we’ll be the government of reconstruction,” Mr. Pinera said recently. (BBC) Last month, the conservative leader named his cabinet, leaving out any figures linked with the former military ruler, Augusto Pionchet.

Mr. Pinera made his fortune introducing credit cards to Chile, then went on to buy a television channel, a stake in Chile’s most successful football club, and put millions of dollars into other investments.

Mr. Pinera’s victory ended a 20-year run for the leftist coalition that led Chile back to democracy after the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, and puts the country’s relatively small business elite directly in power. But Mr. Pinera has promised to maintain social programs created by Cachelet, who leaves the office with 84 percent approval ratings.

The new President lacks legislative majority, so compromises with leftists will be a must, and restive unions have threatened crippling strikes if Mr. Pinera insists on his promise to privatize part of the state-run Codelco mining company, which provides much of the government’s revenues.

Leaders of the center-left coalition, which earlier rejected the idea of a national unity government, have moderated their tone and promised legislative support for Mr. Pinera’s reconstruction plans.

Last month’s earthquake – the fifth-strongest since 1900 – killed 500 identified victims and potentially hundreds of others. Authorities this week released the names of 279 people whose bodies had been identified in the quake, but officials said the new tally does not include hundreds of unidentified victims.

The quake destroyed or heavily damaged at least 500,000 homes and broke apart highways and hospitals. Repairing infrastructure alone will cost $5-billion (U.S.), and overall recovery costs could soar above $15-billion. The quake was violent enough to move the Chilean city of Concepcion at least 10 feet to the west and Santiago about 11 inches to the west-southwest, researchers said.

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