VALDIVIA, Chile – One of the world’s six-largest earthquakes in recorded history has left hundreds dead and damaged buildings, roads, and bridges throughout central Chile.
Chileans slowly are becoming aware of the breadth of the disaster, which President Michelle Bachelet called "a catastrophe of devastating consequences."
Chile’s president-in-waiting, Sebastian Pinera, who is to take office on March 11, had an extensive tour of the damage, then grimly told reporters “it is probable that the official number of people who have lost their lives is going to increase, and there are many injured.”
“Our future government is going to do all that is necessary to help the victims of this earthquake and to accelerate the process of reconstruction,” said Pinera.
The earthquake was felt across the region to varying degrees. In Argentina, many hundred miles away from the epicenter, which was just north of Chile’s second-largest-city Concepcion in central Chile, towns like Villa de Angostura were jolted awake to shaking beds. Four regions of Chile were declared “zones of catastrophe.”
In the southern Chilean city of Valdivia, which nearly 50 years ago, on May 22, 1960, was the site of an earthquake measuring a devastating 9.5 on the Richter scales — the world’s most powerful earthquake in history – residents were especially aware of the dangers of this natural disaster.
Monica Paredes, 31, who runs boat tours with her father along the Cruces River, which winds through this coastal city located about 330 miles south of the epicenter of the earthquake, said her home rocked back and forth progressively stronger for several minutes, sending her television and furniture flying across the house. Her stepfather, Armando Peralta, 73, a survivor of the 1960 earthquake, immediately recognized the magnitude of this earthquake and sought to keep them calm.
"We were sleeping, and then the house began to rise up," said Paredes. "We're still terrified."
Laura Sierra, 25, said that her mother, another survivor of the world’s worst-ever earthquake, screamed with outright fright as they hurried down the stairs from the fourth-floor of their rickety, old apartment building. They were sure it was going to collapse.
"We were trembling on the street in our pajamas watching the street move below us for what seemed like 15 minutes," said Sierra.
The nearly 50-years-old concrete dock at the Muelle Schuster, the main river port in the center of town, split into two. Chilean Naval Captain Srdjan Darrigrande, who is in charge of the port, said boats are prohibited from heading out to sea for the next three days. He said that though the biggest damage is likely behind Chile, they must take precautions. "We don't want to create hysteria. We are encouraging people to stay calm," he said.
Islands throughout the Pacific braced for a possible tsunami after diverse reports that several central Chile beach towns were partially under water after being pounded by waves at least 6 feet higher than normal.
On Chile’s Robinson Crusoe Island, part of Juan Fernandez National Park, about 30 percent of the houses, several hotels and the government's municipal office were said to have disappeared after being hit by giant waves. Pedro Forteza, a pilot who visited the island after the tsunami hit, told Chilean National Television that “the damage is much worse than anyone can imagine. At least 40-50 houses are gone."
But the epicenter of the earthquake was off the coast of Cobquecura, a town of more than 5,600 people where radio reports said 95 percent of the town was completely destroyed.
Chileans can expect more tremors, including the possibility of another earthquake in the weeks ahead, said experts. There were more than 60 aftershocks on Saturday, with three measuring greater than 6 on the Richter scale.
Seismologists worldwide say the Chile quake was significantly stronger than the tremor that devastated Haiti on Jan. 12. Mark Benthien of the USC Earthquake Center told the Los Angeles Times that an 8.8 quake causes roughly 500 "times the shaking" that Haiti's 7.o quake produced.
In part because Chile is one of the world’s most seismic countries, and thus with strict building codes, many buildings suprisingly stood up to this powerful earthquake. Still, Chileans are becoming more aware of the massive damage as new images and reports come to light.
Recovery efforts are underway and Chile President Michelle Bachelet told national television that nearly 2 million Chileans are believed affected by the earthquake to varying degrees. Officals expect it will take at least a year to repair all the damage.
“We are facing at a catacylsm of historic proportions,” said Chilean Interior Minister Edmundo Perez Yoma.