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7.9 quake rumbles coastal Peru

By Natalia Tarnawieski

LIMA, Peru (CNN) -- An earthquake with a magnitude of 7.9 shook the southern region of Peru this afternoon, leaving at least 40 people dead and hundreds injured, officials said.

Geophysicist Brian Lassige at the National Earthquake Center in Golden, Colorado, said the quake was centered about 120 miles west of the city of Arequipa on the coast, about 500 miles southeast of Lima.

"This level of quake is considered a major earthquake," he said.

Civil defense officials said 18 people were killed in Arequipa, where at least 170 people were injured as well. Local media said six people died in Moquegua , about 20 miles south of Arequipa. Five people were injured closer to Lima, where the vibrations from the quake were felt. They also stretched to the southern border with Chile.

Journalist Natalia Tarnawieski describes the early impact of the Peruvian earthquake
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"For the love of God, please send help," a woman could be heard screaming while a radio reporter described bodies in the streets of Moquegua, according to The Associated Press.

Arequipa's mayor, Juan Manuel Guillen, said a state of emergency had been declared, according to Reuters.

He also said 70 percent of the homes in the city had suffered damage. Rescue crews were being hampered in searching the rubble for survivors because night has fallen and most of the power is out in the city.

"The city is paralyzed," a Reuters reporter in the town said. Radio programs aired hysterical callers frantically asking for government assistance.

Aftershocks were continuing after the initial quake, which occurred around 3:35 p.m. local time (4:30 p.m. ET).

Tsunami warnings have been declared for the coasts of Chile, Peru, Ecuador and Columbia, and tsunami watches extend northward to the western coast of Mexico.

Some 30 percent of the historic buildings had been damaged in Arequipa, known in Peru's as "the white city" because of its fine colonial architecture and churches, Reuters reported.

The tower of an ancient church in the center of town crumbled in the temblor, and officials said thousands of people fled their homes in panic when they felt the rumbling, which lasted for more than one minute.

Prevention units from Arequipa's fire department were in the streets trying to calm residents and assess the damage.

Officials are also concerned about the weather. With many people homeless, or too afraid to go back into their homes, they will be forced to stay outside without shelter or many blankets in temperatures expected to drop to 42 degrees Fahrenheit (6 degrees Celsius).

Journalists Natalia Tarnawieski and Claudia Cisneros contributed to this report.

• National Weather Service, Pacific Tsunami Warning Center
• USGS National Earthquake Information Center

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