Life slowly returns to normal in quake-hit Chile

Life was gradually returning to normal in northern Chile on Friday, with power restored to a majority of homes that lost electricity during this week's powerful 8.2-magnitude earthquake.

Tuesday's earthquake killed six people and forced thousands to evacuate, especially in coastal areas vulnerable to flooding and tsunamis.

A seventh fatality was attributed to the earthquake on Friday when a six-day-old baby of a family made homeless in the disaster died from cardiac arrest.

Officials from regional utilities said power and other basic services were well on the way to being fully restored across the worst-hit areas. Water was also running again in many areas that had seen disruptions.

General Miguel Alfonso, head of the disaster zone that is centred on the coastal city of Iquique, said that he expected normal food and energy distribution will be possible within about three weeks.

A series of smaller, but still powerful quakes have shaken the country since Tuesday -- including a 7.6-magnitude tremor on Wednesday that forced thousands to flee their homes again.

Many families still slept outside Thursday into Friday, and were likely to continue to do so, as aftershocks continue to rattle the country.

The hardest-hit victims from Tuesday's quake were inhabitants of desert towns and villages who reside in the highland plateaus where water sometimes is already scarce.

The fragile construction of dwellings in these areas puts residents at greater risk from building collapse during a quake, officials said.

President Michelle Bachelet's new government, meanwhile, issued a warning to those seeking to profit from the misfortune, vowing aggressive prosecution against speculators.

Bachelet also has deployed troops to deter looting, but her government said no arrests had been made as of early Friday.

- Test for Bachelet -

Residents of Iquique, a city of some 180,000 people which was hardest hit by the quake, had complained of price gouging as they tried to buy water and staple food products.

The earthquake hit Chile just weeks after Bachelet began her second term in office.

The political stakes were regarded as particularly high because of missteps during her first administration's response to an 8.8-magnitude quake in 2010.

That disaster left more than 500 people dead, and resulted in some $30 million in damages.

Bachelet this week re-ordered her calendar to devote full attention to this week's quake, the first major challenge of her new adminstration.

She returned on Thursday to Santiago after surveying the quake zone, holding meetings with her cabinet to discuss what steps should be taken next in the relief and rebuilding effort.

The disaster has led her to push to one side, for now, her ambitious agenda of economic and educational reform.

"It could be that some areas will need a bit more time because we have to focus our efforts on repair and rebuilding," she said.

Overall damage from the quake was less extensive than initially feared, proving the benefits of stringent construction standards and exhaustive disaster preparedness measures in the earthquake-prone nation.

Those standards were put in place after a massive 9.5-magnitude quake in 1960 killed thousands of Chileans and left huge swaths of the country in ruins.

By contrast, much of this week's earthquake damage was limited to some 2,500 homes outside of Iquique, according to officials.