Tsunami Alert Rattles Chile

Four days after giant waves swept hundreds to their death, two powerful aftershocks, with magnitudes of 5.9 and 6.0, triggered a brief new tsunami warning on Wednesday along the stretch of Chile’s central coast worst hit on Saturday.

Thousands of traumatised earthquake survivors, some still trying to identify loved ones claimed by killer waves, rushed to higher ground as troops ushered them up hillsides. The alert was lifted less than 30 minutes later.

Ignacio Gutierrez, from a Chilean television station, was driving into the devastated seaside resort of Constitución when people fleeing stopped his car and shouted: “Run, run there is a tsunami.”

Nelson Muna was bringing food and water for victims when he heard the sirens wailing and was confronted by a scene of utter panic: “We saw soldiers running, everyone running out of town. Even the soldiers were scared.”

Another aftershock

Another 6.1 magnitude aftershock struck late on Wednesday in central Chile, one of nearly 200 to rattle the South American nation since Saturday’s massive 8.8 temblor, among the strongest ever measured.

The panic came just as thousands of troops, with the help of a strict curfew, finally appeared to have restored some semblance of normality in Concepción, Chile’s second city, after days of post-quake unrest.

Traffic lights blinked on and neon signs came back to life as electricity returned and one of the area’s biggest supermarkets announced it was opening for business.

With armoured military vehicles guarding strategic points, food rations were being distributed by soldiers and volunteers in an orderly way, easing public anxiety after days when locals were left to defend themselves from armed gangs and arson attacks.

Deputy Interior Minister Patricio Rosende said more than 8 000 tons of relief aid have been distributed so far in affected areas, with another 174 tons ready for aerial and overland distribution on Thursday and 700 tons by two navy ships.

Remote regions ignored

But families in the more remote parts of the surrounding Maule and Bio Bio regions complained they were being ignored and called desperately for supplies and medicine for children suffering from fevers and other ailments.

“In the countryside, we have received nothing,” said Juana Rodriguez, a resident of Puerta Verde, a hamlet of 36 families not far from Constitución.

“We need water, diapers, milk,” she pleaded.

On Wednesday, the official death toll from the devastating quake and the tsunami it unleashed rose to 802.

The majority of the new deaths were reported in the region north of Concepción called Maule, where nearly 600 people have been confirmed dead.

Death toll expected to rise

The toll, so far largely made up of people killed in the tsunami that followed the quake, is expected to rise sharply as coastal areas account for hundreds of missing.

In the seaside resort of Constitución, before Wednesday’s tsunami alert, sobbing relatives visited the morgue to identify swollen remains. Seven unidentified corpses in advanced stages of decomposition were listed as “NN,” or “No Name.”

“Most of the bodies are badly bloated and mutilated, difficult to identify. The stench is terrible,” said an army lieutenant. “We’re expecting more,” said the officer, who would not give his name but whose lapel read Gutierrez.

The handwritten list on a large white board propped against the morgue fence showed 78 dead from the tsunami that levelled low-lying areas of a town that was a holiday paradise before disaster struck.

The head of the mayor’s office said around 100 people were confirmed dead, but that at least 300 more were missing and feared dead in Constitución alone.

Struggling to cope

Despite being one of Latin America’s richest countries, Chile has struggled to cope with the scale of a catastrophe thought to have cost it tens of billions of dollars.

President Michelle Bachelet, who has deployed 14 000 troops to the disaster zone, addressed the nation again on Wednesday, laying out in detail the extent of the damage.

“The reconstruction task will be enormous,” said Bachelet, admitting many of Chile’s lifeline industries, from agriculture and fishing to tourism and trade, had been decimated by the disaster.

“We will work so that the country emerges from the ruins,” she said in a defiant rallying cry to her battered nation, where one of the biggest quake’s on record has affected an estimated two million of the 16 million population.

In Peru, President Alan Garcia, on his arrival from Chile, launched an earthquake awareness programme for his country’s largest cities to inspect buildings for structural weaknesses and prepare evacuation plans. – AFP