18 Sep 2015

Aftershocks continue after Chilean quake

1:18 pm on 18 September 2015

Earthquake stricken central Chile is still feeling aftershocks from yesterday's magnitude 8.3 earthquake which killed 11 people and forced a million from their homes.

Fishing boats run aground in the Chilean port of Coquimbo.

Fishing boats run aground in the Chilean port of Coquimbo. Photo: AFP

The quake was strongest to shake the world this year and the biggest to hit Chile since 2010.

More than a million people were evacuated from their homes after the magnitude-8.3 quake struck in the Pacific Ocean near the port of Coquimbo, slamming powerful waves into coastal towns.

The quake killed 11 people before the ocean surges began, wrecking buildings in coastal communities and leaving large fishing boats washed up in the streets.

Large fishing boats had washed up onto the streets Coquimbo. Others vessels splintered, littering the bay with debris.

"We lost it all. It was horrible," said 79-year-old Hilda Zambra, whose home in Tongoy, 40 south of Coquimbo, was destroyed by surging waters.

"I don't know how I got out of there," she said as a shipment of Red Cross aid arrived in the normally quiet tourist destination. "It was dark. I jumped into some stranger's pickup truck. We left with what we had on our backs."

The homes of 610 people were so damaged that they were unable to return by late Thursday afternoon, according to government data. Nearly 180 homes were destroyed, 87,600 people were without electricity and 9000 without clean water.

The country's interior minister, Jorge Burgos, said the emergency was declared after the President, Michelle Bachelet, visited the area. Earlier, Chile lifted the tsunami warning.

Lessons learned

Speaking ahead of her tour of the damaged areas along the coast, Ms Bachelet said her government had learned a series of lessons from previous disasters.

The authorities had been quick to issue tsunami alerts to avoid repeating the slow response to the country's 8.8-magnitude quake in 2010. More than 500 people died then, many as a result of a tsunami triggered by the massive tremor.

In the hours after the 2010 quake, Ms Bachelet and her government misjudged the extent of damage and turned down offers of international aid, which delayed the flow of assistance to disaster areas.

The US Geological Survey (USGS) said yesterday's shallow quake hit west of Illapel, 228 kilometres north of the capital, Santiago, which is home to 6.6 million people.

The quake shook buildings in Santiago, and panicked people gathered in streets lined with damaged buildings. TV footage showed shops with floors strewn with a mess of broken bottles, jars and other spilled products.

Officials say 1800 people in Illapel were left without drinking water.

Waves up to 4.5m high surged through coastal towns and the port of Coquimbo suffered major damage.

The port of Coquimbo was badly damaged in the 8.3 magnitude earthquake.

The port of Coquimbo was badly damaged in the 8.3 magnitude earthquake. Photo: AFP PHOTO/FUERZA AEREA CHILENA

Rescue and medical teams are working in many centres, and residents have been trying to salvage belongings from their wrecked homes.

Large aftershocks have been continuing -- the most recent was above magnitude-5 and hit around 10.30 last night.

The USGS said the tremor struck off the coast of Coquimbo, 46km west of the city of Illapel just before 8pm local time at a depth of 25km. Chilean seismologists have calculated its depth at 11km.

Yesterday's quake was Chile's third big one in five years.

It struck as thousands of Chileans were travelling to the coast ahead of a week of celebrations for independence day.

Ms Bachelet said some of the official festivities would be cancelled.

A collapsed structure in Concon, 110 km northwest of the capital Santiago, hit by an 8.3-magnitude earthquake.

A collapsed structure in Concon, 110 km northwest of the capital Santiago. Photo: AFP

Freelance journalist Jane Chambers is on the coast about 130km south from the worst affected area of Coquimbo.

"At first I thought it was just a tremor but it was really strong and went on for around three minutes. It was much stronger than any tremors I had ever felt before."

She said the local town was evacuated and a restaurant down on the beach was flooded.

"But most things here are returning to normal."

-BBC, ABC, Reuters

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs