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Chilean coastal town Dichato deals with double whammy

Residents worry about how to move on in a town that was once a favorite spot for sunbathing and water sports.

DICHATO, Chile — Locals like to say the sea is always tranquil at this beach town on Chile’s central coast. But that tranquility was disturbed forever when a tsunami pounded Dichato two hours after one of the most powerful earthquakes the world has ever witnessed.

Houses were knocked down or swept away to sea. Cars, boats, restaurants — whatever lay in the path of the incoming tsunami — were split apart and tossed about. Nearby, at Coliumo beach, fishing boats weighing at least 10 tons were lifted by the tsunami and deposited three kilometers inland next to farms.

Pamela Medina, 20, says the sky turned an eery reddish-orange, illuminating the view from her perch on a hill overlooking Dichato, located 50 kilometers north of Concepcion. Medina said the waves were about 10 meters high before they crashed down and enveloped the town. She will never forget the sound of the houses cracking apart: “It sounded like thousands of pieces of wood splitting up, one after another."

Like most others in the 3,500-person town, which draws about 10,000 tourists during Chile’s summer season each year (December through February), Medina escaped to the hills after the earthquake shook her out of bed at 3:34 a.m. on Saturday. Her family was aware that a tsunami could follow. Moreover, firemen went through town urging everyone to move to the hills above.

Slideshow: scenes of destruction

Slideshow: Concepcion post-quake

Still, 42 people were missing and 26 confirmed dead as of Wednesday. Many point fingers at a radio broadcast just minutes before the giant waves struck reporting that the Chilean Navy said there was no imminent danger of a tsunami. A number of locals said in interviews that some Dichato residents, upon hearing there was no danger, returned to their homes or stayed put.

Chile Defense Minister Francisco Vidal admitted to reporters earlier this week that they made a mistake by not immediately warning of a tsunami.

But such an admission is not enough for Patricio Dunn, a fisherman, who said he was looking for his brother, Ned, who had been at the waterfront drinking that evening. Showing his brother’s identification card, an angry Dunn, 48, said the government made an unforgiveable error.

In addition, though the Chilean Navy recently arrived with enough food to feed about 500 locals, Dunn complains the government did little to help in the first few days as the town dealt with hunger, lack of shelter and looters.

“We have been on our own,” said Dunn. “We need a lot of help to clean up this place and rebuild, yet the government is too proud to accept help from other countries.”