Chile earthquake: Disaster planning pays off

Story highlights

  • At least 11 people die after 8.3-magnitude quake; aftershocks continue
  • Chilean President on disaster preparation: "We took the right measures"
  • More than 170 homes were destroyed in the earthquake, officials say

(CNN)It had the makings of a deadly disaster of massive proportions.

But officials surveying the damage left behind by an 8.3-magnitude earthquake that struck off Chile's coast Wednesday night said the toll could have been far more devastating. Advanced planning and authorities' quick reaction, they said, likely saved lives.
"The response to this earthquake has been very efficient, and we took the right measures," President Michelle Bachelet said.
    Chile's coast is prone to earthquakes, and the country has a long history of large quakes, according to Randy Baldwin, a U.S. Geological Survey geophysicist.
    "They've had a lot of experience," Baldwin said. And that, he said, has made authorities step up their efforts to monitor quake activity and retrofit buildings to better withstand them.
    Still, damage assessments and cleanup efforts are far from over. So far, authorities have confirmed that at least 11 people were killed in the quake, which triggered a 16-foot tsunami wave that slammed the coastline in one of the hardest hit regions. And more than 170 homes were destroyed.
    A tearful Eugenia Casanga told CNN sister network CNN Chile that her home was one of them.
    "I lost everything," she said. "My house, my business, everything."

    Massive waves

    The quake's epicenter was 46 kilometers (29 miles) west of Illapel, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. It had a depth of 25 kilometers (15.5 miles).
    Some of the fatalities occurred in Illapel, where homes sustained much of the damage.
    Authorities declared a state of emergency in the the region of Coquimbo after Bachelet visited the area, Interior Minister Jorge Burgos said.
    More than 70,000 homes in the area remained without power, he said.
    Shortly after the quake, Chile's national emergency agency issued a tsunami alert, ordering evacuations in coastal areas from Arica to Puerto Aysen. About 1 million people went to higher ground.
    Large tsunami waves washed along the coast near the quake's epicenter. In Coquimbo, a 15.6-foot wave became the largest to land on Chile's shores, according to the U.S. National Tsunami Warning Center.
    In La Serena, a coastal city north of Coquimbo, pictures taken at a shopping mall showed walls and signs that had toppled to the floor as well as chairs, benches and tables covered in rubble.

    Aftershocks continue

    More than a dozen aftershocks of magnitude-4.9 or higher rattled residents. Some could be felt in the capital of Santiago, about 230 kilometers (145 miles) away from the quake's epicenter.
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    "Everybody ran outside. The windows rattled. Things fell. ... The impact was strong," said Emily Hersh, who lives in Santiago. "Even after I stepped outside, I felt the ground moving."
    The earthquake hit during rush hour, causing traffic snarls that left many stuck as they tried to get home, said Fabrizio Guzman, emergency communications manager for World Vision in Chile.
    "There were many people afraid, running in the streets, when the shaking started," he said in a statement. "The earthquake felt really intense and seemed to last for several minutes."
    One aftershock had a magnitude of 7.0. But that's nearly 20 times smaller than the original magnitude-8.3 quake, according to the U.S. Geological Survey's "How Much Bigger" calculator.
    More aftershocks are expected, warns Baldwin, the geophysicist. "They could last for weeks, even into months," he said.

    Tsunami watch

    Tsunami advisories were issued thousands of miles away, including in Hawaii and California.
    By Thursday, the advisories in the United States had been canceled.
    But in New Zealand, 6,000 miles away from the quake's epicenter, a tsunami warning remained in effect.
    Strong tidal currents and large waves were expected in some areas, said Shane Bayley of New Zealand's Ministry of Civil Defence.
    Chile sits on an arc of volcanoes and fault lines circling the Pacific Ocean known as the "Ring of Fire."
    The area experiences frequent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.
    Since 1973, Chile has had more than a dozen quakes of magnitude 7.0 and above.