SANTIAGO, Chile -- President Michelle Bachelet has declared three areas in northern Chile as catastrophe zones after a massive earthquake caused six fatalities and the evacuation of more than 900,000 people.
A tsunami was triggered late Tuesday after the quake, measuring 8.2 on the Richter scale, struck 60 miles northwest of the mining town of Iquique, close to Chile’s border with Peru.
Waves seven foot higher than usual battered parts of the Pacific shoreline, destroying scores of fishing boats and causing flooding in low-lying parts of the region.
In Tarapaca, one of the worst affected areas, 2,000 homes were damaged and the government deployed 100 riot police to support military personnel prevent looting and other crime.
Water supplies were interrupted and power outages crippled parts of the country as an additional 96 aftershocks occurred.
A red alert was declared along the coast and a team of army personnel was deployed to Iquique to set up a field hospital after a regional hospital was partially damaged.
In Arica, 13 percent of the region was without power while 33 percent had no access to drinking water. In Tarapaca, 38,509 people were affected by a power outage and in Antofogasta, the commune of Ollague was without power.
Speaking in Tarapaca on Wednesday morning, the recently inaugurated president expressed her condolences to the families of the six people killed and stressed that the priority was to get the early return of water and electricity in areas that did not have these facilities.
She said that studies were being conducted to assess the damage to homes and pledged support to local fishermen, including a bill to help them recover their ships.
“You are not alone,” she said. “We have instructed the Minister of Economy and the Undersecretary of Fisheries to take any action.”
Bachelet added: “We know that these days, from March 16 [when major tremors were felt in the north of Chile], have not been easy and that there have been many earthquakes in the last hour, [plus] last night’s earthquake and subsequent tsunami.”
Work was underway, she said, to “assess the damage to homes and other infrastructure to ensure a return to home safely.”
Shortly after midday, Ricardo Toro, director of Chile’s National Emergency Office, issued a statement that 131 of the 297 female inmates who were reported to have escaped from a prison in Iquique have since voluntarily returned to captivity. He added that the Caculluta Airport and Arica hospital were fully operational and flights were operating as normal at the Diego Aracena Airport.
It is likely to be some days, if not weeks, until the full extent of the tragedy is known. The financial cost of the last major earthquake in Chile, which struck in 2010 and had a magnitude of 8.8, was estimated at about $30 billion, according to media reports.
This time, locals as well as authorities have been quick to praise the speedy action taken to evacuate citizens and restore calm.
Gabriela Riveros, a 34-year-old events coordinator from Santiago, told the Miami Herald that some of her friends, who were based near the seafront in the north of the country, had been evacuated but none had been harmed.
Although initially “surprised and shocked” after hearing the news, she said she felt authorities had been “very organized.”
Compared to the 2010 earthquake, which triggered a tsunami and claimed more than 500 lives, she said the government and emergency services had acted quickly.
“This year, they were very organized. I think the authorities have learned from the problems [in the handling of the earthquake response] and we were more prepared this time than before,” Riveros said.
Her sentiments were echoed by David Rodriguez, a 29-year-old astronomer working at the University of Chile.
“I think Chile is prepared for these kinds of events,” he said.