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Chile toll hits 700; aid sought

SANTIAGO, Chile — With more than 700 people reported dead, rescuers smashed through fallen walls and sawed into rubble Sunday in an urgent push to find survivors of the massive earthquake that tore through Chile a day earlier. Some 2 million were said to be displaced, injured or otherwise impaired by the disaster. Untold numbers remained missing.

Government forces struggled to contain looting in some of the most heavily damaged areas, dispatching the army to Concepcion, Chile's second-largest city. Large parts of the country remained without water or electricity. Tent triage centers were being set up around battered hospitals as authorities implored doctors to report to work and a series of strong aftershocks continued to rattle the disaster zone.

President Michelle Bachelet announced the death toll from one of the most powerful quakes on record had jumped to 708, nearly doubling as rescue crews reached remote, devastated towns close to the offshore epicenter. "These numbers will continue to grow," she said.

In one such coastal community, Constitucion, as many as 350 may have been killed by the quake and a tsunami wave that hit about half an hour later, covering shattered homes with thick mud, state television reported. Boats were tossed from the sea like paper toys, landing with a crash onto the roofs of houses.

"This is an emergency without parallel in the history of Chile," Bachelet said. "We will need everyone from the public and private sector … to join in a gigantic effort" to recover, she added, allowing for the first time that international aid will be welcomed.

Saturday's magnitude 8.8 quake toppled buildings, buckled freeways and set off sirens thousands of miles away as governments scrambled to protect coastal residents from the ensuing tsunami. Tsunami warnings were lifted Sunday after smaller-than-feared waves hit shores from Southern California to Hawaii and Japan. But Chilean authorities acknowledged they had underestimated the potential for tsunami damage in places such as Constitucion and the Robinson Crusoe islands.

Looting broke out in some of the most heavily damaged areas, where residents complained they were hungry and bereft of basic supplies. Crowds overran supermarkets in Concepcion, about 70 miles south of the epicenter, and were making off with food, water and diapers but also television sets. Several banks, pharmacies and gasoline stations were also hit. At nearby San Pedro, crowds swarmed a shopping mall.

Police in armored vehicles sprayed looters with water cannon and tear gas and made several arrests, mostly of young men.

"The people are desperate and say the only way is to come get stuff for themselves," Concepcion resident Patricio Martinez told reporters. "We have money to buy it but the big stores are closed, so what are we supposed to do?"

Bachelet, following a six-hour emergency meeting with her Cabinet Sunday, announced she was sending 10,000 army troops into the Concepcion area and elsewhere to restore order and assist in recovering bodies and searching for survivors.

On Saturday, she declared swaths of the country "catastrophe zones" and later issued a 30-day emergency decree for the quake zone. It allows the army to be in charge and to enforce a curfew. Hoping to ease panic, she said basic supplies including food will be distributed for free by supermarket chains in the largely soft-soil coastal states of Biobio and Maule, where most of the deaths tallied so far took place.

The mayor of Concepcion, Jacqueline van Rysselberghe, issued a dramatic plea for help to stop the pillaging. "It is out of control!" she told Chilean television.

More than 24 hours after the quake hit, reaching ground-zero sites was an arduous task. Traffic streamed slowly southward from Santiago along buckled roads and cracked overpasses, often making detours on rural side paths. The bus station in Santiago was swamped with Chileans trying to travel south or send food and supplies to families; bus companies canceled most trips because of road conditions.

In the disaster zone, thousands slept outside, wrapped in blankets or with small campfires against the cold, forced from their homes by the structures' precarious condition or by fear stoked by the aftershocks — more than 100 of which registered magnitude 5 or higher, according to the Associated Press.

For all the destruction, Chileans were also picking themselves up and moving on. Commercial flights began to land sporadically at the main international airport, its two terminals punched and cracked but its runways in good shape. The subway in Santiago, the capital, also resumed partial service after inspectors determined the tracks were not in need of repair.

Chile's main seaport, oil refineries and the state-run Codelco, the world's largest copper producer, all shut operations temporarily. The securities exchange expected to function normally today.

Chile toll hits 700; aid sought 02/28/10 [Last modified: Sunday, February 28, 2010 11:30pm]
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