Chile's killer quake sends out Pacific-wide tsunami

SANTIAGO: Huge waves surged across the Pacific on Sunday forcing hundreds of thousands to scramble for safe ground after Chile's devastating earthquake killed more than 300 people, razed buildings and tore up bridges and roads.

Chile's President Michelle Bachelet said more than two million people in the South American nation had been affected by the 8.8 magnitude quake. Rescuers dug for survivors as scores of aftershocks rattled Concepcion, the main city near the epicenter.

But ripples from the massive tremor -- one of the 10 strongest recorded in the past century -- spread much further afield.

Waves over two meters (seven feet) high crashed into the Chilean coast, carrying boats far inland near Concepcion. The tsunami killed at least five people, and leaving 11 missing, in the remote Robinson Crusoe islands before pressing on across the Pacific to Hawaii, Polynesia and beyond.

About 50 countries and territories along an arc stretching from New Zealand to Japan were put on alert, five years after the Indian Ocean tsunami that killed more than 220,000 people.

Japan ordered more than 320,000 people away from its east coast. Sea surges up to 1.2 metres (four feet) high slammed ashore Sunday and part of the port of Nemuro was flooded. "Please do not approach the coast at any cost," Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama warned in a national address.

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The power had gone by the time the waves reached Russia and Australia, and the US government soon canceled its tsunami warning for all Pacific nations.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said in a statement that "additional destructive tsunami impacts" were "not expected for coastal areas not already affected."

In the Chilean port of Talcahuano near Concepcion, trawlers were carried inland to the town square where they lay marooned next to abandoned cars. In the nearby resort of Dichato a small boat was carried 400 metres from the coast.

After touring the worst affected areas Saturday, Bachelet said in an address to the nation that she found it hard to spell out the magnitude of the disaster.

"The power of nature has again struck our country," she said, declaring six of Chile's 15 regions "catastrophe zones".

Highways were sliced to pieces, bridges imploded and buildings fell as the quake struck before dawn.

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"This is a catastrophe of immense proportions, so it will be very difficult to give precise figures," Interior Minister Edmundo Perez Yoma said. Officials estimated up to 1.5 million homes could be destroyed or damaged.

In Santiago, some 325 kilometers (200 miles) northwest of the epicenter, some people were still in the nightclubs and bars celebrating the start of the weekend when the quake struck just after 3:00 am. The capital was plunged into near darkness as power and communications lines were snapped and roofs came down. Santiago airport was closed.

"It was the worst experience of my life," said 22-year-old Sebastian, standing outside his house in eastern Santiago.

"Friends who were at clubs said it was pandemonium," said Santiago resident Maren Andrea Jimenez, an American expert working for the United Nations. "It was scary! Plaster began falling from the ceiling."

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Only the Internet was left working for many people who did have power and word of the quake with images were spread by Twitter and Facebook social blogging networks.

At Curico, about 250 kilometers (155 miles) north of the epicenter, the quake destroyed about 90 percent of the town's historic center, reported the local radio station which set up a newsroom in the main square powered by an emergency generator.

The European Union, United States and other immediately countries offered assistance. Chile has also received reaffirmation of support from the world's leading financial institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

US President Barack Obama said: "Early indications are that hundreds of lives have been lost in Chile and damage is severe. On behalf of the American people, Michelle and I send our deepest condolences to the Chilean people."

But Chile's Foreign Minister Mariano Fernandez asked countries that offered aid to hold off until authorities could assess the emergency needs.

Chile does not want "aid from anywhere to be a distraction" from disaster relief, Fernandez said, adding: "Any aid that arrives without having been determined to be needed really helps very little."

Unlike Haiti, struck by a devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake on January 12 which killed 217,000 people, Chile is one of Latin America's wealthiest countries.

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The total value of economic damage is likely to range between 15 billion and 30 billion dollars, a US risk modeling firm, EQECAT, predicted. This is about 10-15 percent of Chile's real gross domestic product.

The tremor has triggered more than 60 aftershocks ranging from 4.9 to 6.9, Chilean authorities said.

Chile lies along the Pacific "Rim of Fire" and is regularly rocked by quakes, but damage is often limited as they mostly hit in remote desert regions.

The epicenter of the latest quake was a few hundred miles north of the biggest earthquake on record, a 9.5-magnitude monster in May 1960 that killed between 2,200 and 5,700 people and triggered a huge tsunami that reached as far as New Zealand.