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Chile quake: Looting and hoarding on the streets

Near Concepcion, many continue living outside as soldiers try to keep order amid food and gas shortages.

SANTIAGO, Chile — Three days after the quake, there's looting and hoarding on Chile's streets as residents wait for basic necessities to be restored.

The government decreed a state of catastrophe for the Maule and Bio Bio regions — the areas most devasted by Saturday's 8.8-magnitude earthquake and where most of the 708 confirmed deaths took place. The decree means 10,000 soldiers will be out on the streets to restore order as well as help deliver assistance and contribute to rescue efforts.

President Michelle Bachelet said an estimated 2 million people have been displaced, 1.5 million homes were damaged — at least half a million of them uninhabitable — and that the death toll would probably rise in the next few days. She said Chile “is facing a catastrophe of unimaginable magnitude that will require giant efforts.”

The government will accept international aid in terms of field hospitals, rescue workers, water purifiers and damage assessment experts.

Bachelet also announced that the government struck an agreement with the major supermarket chains to provide basic foodstuff to residents in the most devastated areas in an attempt to prevent the major looting that has been escalating in the south since Saturday night.

There is now relative calm in the capital Santiago where structural damage was limited. But 10 percent of the city's population is still without electricity, some areas lack water, telecommunication services are poor and many people continue to sleep on the streets near their damaged homes. People have been lining up for blocks at gas stations to fill their tanks. Fearing shortages, they have rushed to supermarkets to buy all they can.

Local vendors are selling essential goods, including mineral water, diapers and bread, at prices several times higher than normal, prompting angry residents to loot stores and supermarkets. The looting in the capital, however, is only occasional.

But in Concepcion, about 500 miles south of the capital and 56 miles south of the epicenter, and other surrounding coastal towns and cities, thousands of desperate residents have been massively looting supermarkets, shops and pharmacies. No major supermarket has escaped. One in Concepcion was even set on fire when there was nothing left to steal.

In some places, the police has opted to stand by and allow people to take foodstuffs, but not steal other non-essential goods.

As in Santiago, cars are lining up at gas stations, but in some places, drivers have been taking the gas themselves from stations that were left unattended.

On Sunday morning, the mayor of Concepcion called on the government to send military troops to restore order in the city, which, she said, was out of control. Hours later, the government announced a curfew in the Maule and Bio Bio regions starting Sunday night. No one will be allowed to wander the streets from 9 p.m to 6 a.m.

Hundreds of people lost everything in the quake or tsunamis and are now living and sleeping outdoors, near their homes to protect their goods and property, or up hills where they had fled with whatever they could grab as they escaped the tidal waves that came shortly after the earthquake.

Waves several meters high smashed into small fishing towns, city ports and tourist coastal centers, engulfing everything in sight. In Talcahuano, an industrial port next to Concepcion, a ship and containers from the port were washed into the city's main plaza. In nearby towns, fishing boats could be seen next to cars.