SANTIAGO, Chile A magnitude-8.2 earthquake struck off Chiles northern coast Tuesday night, setting off a small tsunami that forced an evacuation of coastal areas. The region apparently escaped major damage and casualties, but landslides blocked roads, power failed for thousands, an airport was damaged and several businesses caught fire.
Chiles interior minister, Rodrigo Penailillo, said there have been five confirmed deaths. He attributed those deaths to heart attacks or being crushed.
Penailillo said d President Michelle Bachelet was closely watching the situation and was ready to take any measures to ensure peoples safety. Hundreds of soldiers were being deployed in the quake zone, he added.
Thousands have lost power, and hundreds of thousands of Chileans are spending the night away from their beds due to the evacuation order, which remains in effect for northern Chile.
Damage was reported to Highway A16 north of Iquique, a major port city of about 182,000 people at the edge of Chiles copper mining Atacama desert region. The governor of the northern Iquique area, Gonzalo Prieto, told Radio Cooperativa that several peoplewere seriously injured.
About 300 inmates escaped from a womens prison in Iquique, and officials said Chiles military was sending a planeload of special forces to guard against looting.
With the exception of Iquique, the regions closest to the epicenter of the quake are remote and sparsely populated. Pisagua, about 65 miles north of Iquique, has fewer than 300 inhabitants, and the town of Arica, about 120 miles north of Iquique, has about 10,600 residents, according to recent census data. The Arica and Parinacota regions, where the quake was felt strongly, have a combined population of about 215,000.
In the city of Arica, minor injuries were reported and some homes made of adobe were destroyed, officials said. The quake shook modern buildings in nearby Peru and in Bolivias high altitude capital of La Paz.
The U.S. Geological Survey initially reported the quake at 8.0, but later upgraded the magnitude. It said the quake struck 61 miles northwest of the Chilean city of Iquique at 8:46 p.m., hitting a region that has been rocked by numerous quakes over the past two weeks.
Blackouts and telephone outages also were reported.
Psychiatrist Ricardo Yevenes said he was with a patient in Arica when the quake 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 Bolivias capital about 290 miles away was the equivalent of a 4.5-magnitude tremor, authorities there said.
At least 10 strong aftershocks followed in the first few hours, 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.
Some roads in northern Chile were blocked by landslides, causing traffic jams among people leaving the coast. But coastal residents remained calm as they head inland while waves measuring almost 6½ feet struck their cities.
Evacuations also were ordered in Peru, where waves 6½ feet above normal forced about 200 people to leave the seaside town of Boca del Rio. But there were no injuries or major damage, said Col. Enrique Blanco, the regional police chief in Tacna, a Peruvian city of 300,000 near the Chilean border. The lights went out briefly, but were re-established, Blanco said.
A tsunami alert was issued by the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center for all of Latin Americas Pacific coast. Chiles Emergency Office warned that a large tsunami wave was expected to hit Robinson Crusoe island and others in the Juan Fernandez archipelago, hundreds of miles off Chiles central coast. Residents there evacuated ahead of the first waves. Chiles Easter Island, much farther off in the Pacific, was expected to get hit after midnight Wednesday.
Authorities in the U.S. state of Hawaii were on alert, but no tsunami watch was issued. The tsunami center said any higher waves would hit Hawaii starting 3:24 a.m. Hawaii Standard Time.
Chile is one of the worlds 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.
The last recorded big quake to hit far northern Chile around Iquique was a devastating magnitude-8.3 in 1877. It unleashed a nearly 80-foot-high tsunami, causing major damage along the Chile-Peru coast and fatalities as far away as Hawaii and Japan.
A magnitude-8.8 quake and ensuing tsunami in central Chile in 2010 killed more than 500 people, destroyed 220,000 homes, and washed away docks, riverfronts and seaside resorts. That quake released so much energy, it actually shortened the Earths day by a fraction of a second by changing the planets rotation.
The strongest earthquake ever recorded on Earth also happened in Chile a magnitude-9.5 tremor in 1960 that killed more than 5,000 people.
Chile is the worlds leading copper producing nation, and most of its mining industry is in the northern regions. Top mining companies said there was no serious damage to their operations so far.
McClatchy Newspapers contributed to this report.