After Chile Quake, Thousands Return Home; Damage Believed Limited

Chile declares disaster zone after deadly quake hits north, but calls off tsunami alert.

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Thousands of people evacuated from Chile's low-lying coastal areas returned home on Wednesday morning after authorities called off a tsunami alarm as damage from a massive overnight earthquake seemed mostly limited.

The major earthquake, with a magnitude 8.2, struck off the coast of northern Chile on Tuesday, killing six and triggering a tsunami that pounded the shore with 2-meter (7-foot) waves.

Mines in Chile, the world No. 1 copper producer, appeared to be undamaged.

Angamos, a key copper exporting port in northern Mejillones, escaped major damage, but workers were evacuated as a precaution, port union leader Enrique Solar told Reuters.

The country's president, Michelle Bachelet, declared parts of Chile's north a disaster zone, promising troops and police reinforcements to maintain order while damage was repaired after landslides blocked roads.

Bachelet was scheduled to visit the affected areas later Wednesday.

Authorities were evaluating the full extent of damage.

Over 900,000 people were evacuated from the coastline along Chile. Many still have fresh memories of a deadly February 2010 quake and tsunami that struck the country's central-southern regions fresh in its memory.

An unusually large number of tremors that preceded Tuesday's quake unnerved residents, who emptied beaches, rushed to buy emergency rations, and prepared for an eventual evacuation.

"The government of Chile has been working hard to improve the awareness of people living along the coast to the threat from tsunamis and on what to do if one is approaching," said Steven Godby, an expert in disaster management at Nottingham Trent University in Nottingham, England.

"Several tsunami drills have taken place since the (earthquake and) tsunami that killed an estimated 500 plus Chileans in February 2010, and recent earthquakes in the region have helped to keep the threat firmly in people's minds," he added.

The tsunami warning center initially had cancelled tsunami watches for areas other than northern Chile and southern Peru. The only U.S. impact might be higher waves Wednesday for Hawaii's swimmers and surfers, it said.

The U.S. Geological Survey initially reported the quake at 8.0, but later upgraded the magnitude of the quake that struck 61 miles (99 kilometers) northwest of Iquique. More than 20 significant aftershocks followed, including a 6.2 tremor. More aftershocks and even a larger quake could not be ruled out, said seismologist Mario Pardo at the University of Chile.

Psychiatrist Ricardo Yevenes said he was with a patient in Arica when the big one hit.

"It quickly began to move the entire office, things were falling," he told local television. "Almost the whole city is in darkness."

The quake was so strong that the shaking experienced in Bolivia's capital about 290 miles (470 kilometers) away was the equivalent of a 4.5-magnitude tremor, authorities there said.

Chile is one of the world's most earthquake-prone countries because just off the coast, the Nazca tectonic plate plunges beneath the South American plate, pushing the towering Andes cordillera to ever-higher altitudes.

The latest activity began with a strong magnitude-6.7 quake on March 16 that caused more than 100,000 people to briefly evacuate low-lying areas. Hundreds of smaller quakes followed in the weeks since, keeping people on edge as scientists said there was no way to tell if the unusual string of tremors was a harbinger of an impending disaster.

Vehicles and boats lie on the shore after a tsunami hit the northern port of Iquique, Chile, April 2, 2014.Credit: Reuters
Locals take refuge at the city stadium following a tsunami alert after a powerful 8.0-magnitude earthquake hit off Chile's Pacific coast, Iquique, April 1, 2014.Credit: AFP

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