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Sebastian Pinera takes office as aftershocks shake region

Minutes before President-elect Sebastian Pinera was to be sworn into office today, several strong quakes shook Chile’s central-south region, prompting a preventive tsunami alert for the entire coast in about a third of the country.

The Congress building in the port city of Valparaiso was already packed with new and outgoing government officials, foreign presidents, guests and reporters when 20 minutes before the ceremony, everything started to shake.

The aftershock at 11.39 a.m. this morning, with an estimated magnitude of 6.9, is the most powerful so far of the more than 200 tremors that have followed the 8.8-magnitude earthquake that devastated large parts of the country on Feb. 27.

Foreign dignitaries and other guests nervously began looking at each other and at the ceiling, where heavy lamps were swinging back and forth. Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, along with a number of other guests, tried to walk out of the building, but was impeded for security reasons.

The ceremony in which Michelle Bachelet handed the presidential sash over to her successor was jittery and relatively brief as two more aftershocks - of magnitude 6.7 and 6.0- shook the building, reminding the new president of what lays ahead: a massive reconstruction effort in several regions of the country that will demand about $30 billion, according to the new Minister of Finance, Felipe Larrain.

While the ceremony was taking place, the national emergency office ONEMI declared a preventive tsunami alert for five regions, including the one where Congress is located.

The director of ONEMI, Carmen Fernandez, had resigned Wednesday, blaming the media for repeated accusations that her agency was slow in reacting to the emergency. ONEMI has been under fire for failing to issue a tsunami alert at the time. The tsunamis all along the coast, and not the earthquake itself, were the cause of most of the nearly 500 deaths officially confirmed so far.

When the ceremony was over, President Pinera ordered the evacuation of the Congress building.

Elsewhere, in the cities, towns and fishing hamlets along the southern coast, people cried and rushed to get to higher ground at least equivalent to a five-story building, as recommended by ONEMI.

No deaths or major damages have been reported yet, but in the city of Rancagua in the O’Higgins region, 80 kilometers west of the epicenter, a highway overpass collapsed, and some towns were without electricity. Cell phone services were down most everywhere for at least an hour.

Pinera’s first decision shortly after being sworn in was to declare a zone of catastrophe in the O’Higgins region and to announce that his government would "deploy all of the troops that may be necessary starting this evening to guarantee calm and public order." The government has not confirmed whether this includes imposing a curfew, as it has in the two other regions further south worst hit by the earthquake and tsunami.

"This government will not hesitate one instant, or wait one second to act. But at the same time, we call on everyone to remain calm," said Pinera, reminding people that the tsunami alert is only preventive.

The tsunami alert was lifted four hours later.

The new interior minister, Rodrigo Hinzpeter, immediately set up shop at ONEMI headquarters, while Pinera made a brief stop at Rancagua before flying to the southern city of Constitucion, where the quake caused severe destruction.