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One of the most powerful earthquakes on record jolted central Chile on Saturday, smashing homes and bridges and unleashing tsunami waves that coursed across the Pacific, prompting alerts in Hawaii and dozens of countries. At least 214 people were killed in Chile and more than 1.5 million people were displaced. The death toll was expected to rise, particularly around Concepcion, Chile's second-largest metropolitan area, about 70 miles from the epicenter of the 8.8 magnitude quake. There, cars lay mangled and upended on streets littered with telephone and power cables. "We are talking about a tragedy," President Michelle Bachelet said Saturday night in Santiago, hours after she declared a "state of catastrophe."

At least 214 people were killed and 15 were missing as of Saturday evening, Bachelet said in a national address on television. While that remained the official estimate, Carmen Fernandez, head of the National Emergency Agency, said later: "We think the real figure tops 300. And we believe this will continue to grow."

The predawn quake was far stronger than the temblor that rocked Haiti last month. But far fewer people died in Chile because the quake was located farther from big cities and occurred deeper underground — nearly 22 miles beneath the surface. The epicenter was 200 miles southwest of Santiago, the Chilean capital, while the Haitian quake was centered just a few miles outside the major city of Port-au-Prince.

In addition, better building materials were used in Chile, one of the most developed Latin American countries. In poverty-stricken Haiti, more than 200,000 people perished as flimsy homes of cheap concrete disintegrated.

"The people in Chile have a lot of experience with earthquakes. They've done an excellent job of preparing," said Paul Caruso, a geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey.

Roads are hit hard

Still, the disaster wreaked havoc. Newly built apartment buildings slumped and fell. Flames devoured a prison. Millions of people fled into streets darkened by the failure of power lines. The collapse of bridges and tossed and crushed vehicles and complicated efforts to reach quake-damaged areas by road.

Highway overpasses, buildings and bridges collapsed into mounds of twisted metal and chunks of concrete. Roads in Santiago were webbed with cracks and studded with holes big enough to swallow a motorcycle. In Concepcion, firefighters struggled to rescue dozens of people from a 14-story building that pancaked.

Incoming President Sebastian Pinera, who is set to take office March 11, said the quake had dealt "a very serious blow to the infrastructure of our country" and asked key disaster-relief officials to delay their planned departures. Dozens of aftershocks rattled the country, further imperiling fragile buildings.

About 600 travelers at the Santiago airport escaped when massive sections of the roof caved in, glass shattered and water poured through the terminal. Huddled under counters and inside gift stores, the travelers watched the newly renovated airport crumble around them. Though the runways were cleared for takeoffs and landings, the airport was closed because of the internal damage.

Chile's main seaport, in Valparaiso about 75 miles from Santiago, was ordered closed while damage was assessed. Two oil refineries shut down, and lines of cars snaked out of service stations across the country as nervous drivers rushed to fill up.

The state-run Codelco, the world's largest copper producer, halted work at two of its mines, although it said it expected them to resume operations quickly, the newspaper La Tercera reported.

Hundreds of prisoners in the city of Chillan, about 230 miles south of Santiago, escaped when a retaining wall collapsed. Rioting prisoners clashed with guards, leaving three inmates dead.

Cell phone and Internet service was either suspended or sporadic throughout the country, considered one of the most wired in Latin America, complicating rescue efforts.

Being thrown about

Quake survivors told of being flung around in buildings in the dark as the quake struck at 3:34 a.m. local time (1:34 a.m. EST).

Elliott Yamin, a former American Idol finalist, was tweeting in his hotel room in the beach resort of Vina del Mar, about 90 miles from the epicenter, when the building began to shake.

"That's when I stood up and kind of headed toward my doorway, and opened my door. … I was yelling, 'Earthquake! Earthquake! Get out!' " he told CNN.

The earthquake tied for the fifth most powerful since the beginning of the 20th century, according to David Applegate of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Massive waves stirred up by the earthquake caused several casualties in Chile. One crashed into the village of Iloca, on the central coast, sweeping away the police station and a craft market. A series of 10-foot waves later battered remote Robinson Crusoe Island, killing three people and leaving more than a dozen missing, said Guillermo de la Maza, director of Chile's national emergency agency.

In Santiago, more than two dozen significant aftershocks struck the country.

"This was a powerful and sustained eruption," Paul E. Simons, the U.S. ambassador to Chile, said in a telephone interview from Santiago. "Most of the embassy folks I talked to said that it felt like five minutes. It was definitely an emotional experience."

Offers of help

Most of the damage was in Concepcion, near where the world's largest recorded earthquake, a 9.5 temblor, struck in 1960.

In Washington, President Barack Obama spoke briefly outside the White House on Saturday afternoon, expressing concern for Chile and saying the United States would offer aid in rescue and recovery efforts.

President Bachelet said the Chilean government had not asked for assistance from other countries.

Around the world, leaders echoed Obama's sentiment. State Department officials said that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was also contacting Bachelet, with whom she has long had warm personal relations.

Ban Ki Moon, the U.N. secretary-general, also offered his condolences, as well as longer-term aid should Chilean officials signal the need for it.

Chile rests in one of the most active earthquake zones in the world, and building codes are strict.

Shortly after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck in Valparaíso in 1985, the country established strict building codes, according to Andre Filiatrault, the director of the Multidisciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research at the University at Buffalo.

"Chile is not a stranger to earthquakes," he said Saturday in a telephone interview. He said the government code was called the Earthquake Resistant Design of Buildings, and Chilean engineers have been very active in world earthquake conferences.

Information from the Washington Post, New York Times and Associated Press was used in this report.

‘CATASTROPHE' 02/27/10 [Last modified: Sunday, February 28, 2010 12:31am]
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