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Erroneous warning on Chile's tsunami may have increased coastal deaths

The greatest damage and loss of life is not from the quake itself, but from the powerful tsunamis that hit dozens of fishing towns and port cities along the Chilean coast and off-shore islands in the hours right after the quake.

Erroneous information from the Chilean Navy may have made the situation worse along the coast, according to Chilean officils.

There are dozens of small towns that haven't been reached yet on the coast. The waves, belatedly described as tsunamis, hit while it was still dark in the first hours after the quake.

This phenomenon was not reported on until late Saturday and its extent is still not known. What is known is that the tsunamis caused the vast majority of the deaths and destruction. There are dozens of villages and fishing towns on a 100- mile stretch of steep, rocky coast and inlets north and south of the epicenter.

The ones that have been visited show horrendous destruction. National TV journalists showed film from Cobquecura, a town directly east of the epicenter, just off the coast. They found 95 percent of the buildings were destroyed. It was deserted, apparently because everyone had fled to the hills. There are an unknown number of deaths in the muck and rubble.

Half of the reported deaths so far (350 of the total of 708, according to the official count) are in the coastal city of Constitucion, where the tidal wave reached the center plaza of the city. 350 people are reported dead there.

The focus, understandably, has been on Concepcion, which is Chile's second largest city. But Concepcion is 60 miles from the epicenter. The tsunami hit the adjoining harbor, called Talcahuano, flooding a good part of the city.

The government has quietly acknowledged that the Chilean Navy committed "an error" in failing to warn the coastal areas about the tsunami danger immediately following the earthquake. The Navy office in charge of monitoring coastal conditions, known by the acronym SHOA, finally sent out warnings to port authorities, but they arrived almost an hour after the tsunamis hit. Emergency management director Carmen Fernandez described the SHOA warnings as "tremendously ambiguous" and misleading, because they erroneously placed the epicenter in the interior of the country instead in the ocean.

The erroneous information led President Michele Bachelet to say at one point early Saturday that there were high waves but no tsunami on the Chilean coast.