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Death toll from powerful Chile earthquake rises to 12

Published 18/09/2015

A boat and bus lay among the debris left behind by an earthquake-triggered tsunami in the coastal town of Coquimbo (AP)
A boat and bus lay among the debris left behind by an earthquake-triggered tsunami in the coastal town of Coquimbo (AP)

An 8.3-magnitude earthquake that hit off the coast of Chile killed at least 12 people, with five listed as missing, and caused billions in damage.

It left parts of some cities a disaster zone, such as the port of Coquimbo where o verturned cars and splintered boats sat in mud next to furniture, toppled adobe homes and fishing nets tangled in trees.

The most stunning thing about Wednesday night's earthquake, however, may be the relatively low amount of havoc caused by such a powerful shake.

It led more than a million people to evacuate coastal areas, but experts said the death toll could have been far higher.

Seismologists said Chile's heavy investment in structural reinforcement of buildings and constant refinement of its tsunami alert system helped prevent what would have been a catastrophe in less prepared nations.

"Chile has good codes and good compliance, which together have reduced the vulnerabilities of their building stock over the decades," said Richard Olson, director of Florida International University's Extreme Events Institute.

"I would rather be there in one of their cities than in many other countries in an earthquake."

Living in one of the world's most seismically active places, the Andean nation's 17 million people have little choice but become experts in earthquakes.

The strongest earthquake ever recorded happened in Chile - a magnitude-9.5 tremor in 1960 that killed more than 5,000 people.

After another major earthquake in 1985, authorities began implementing strict construction codes similar to those used for highly seismic regions in the US such as California, said Kishor Jaiswal, a civil engineer with the US Geological Survey.

Most buildings in urban areas of Chile are designed to withstand both the vertical forces of gravity and the horizontal jolts that an earthquake inflicts.

Building methods in many other developing countries can withstand gravity and wind but have limited resistance against very strong earthquakes.

Wednesday's quake struck just offshore in the Pacific at 7.54pm local time, and was centred about 141 miles north-northwest of Santiago. It was 7.4 miles below the surface.

It lasted a nerve-shattering three minutes, swayed buildings in the capital, Santiago, and prompted the authorities to issue a tsunami warning for the country's entire Pacific coast.

People sought safety in the streets of inland cities, while others along the shore took to their cars to race to higher ground. Several coastal towns were flooded from small tsunami waves.

Fortified constructions were evident in Coquimbo, a city that was one of the closest to the epicentre.

While adobe houses and some small concrete structures collapsed, the vast majority of buildings were intact.

A small area of the city, which neighbours La Serena, was covered in mud left by inrushing waves. Boats and cars were overturned, and dead fish were mixed in with debris.

"It looks like a war zone here," said Marcelo Leyea, a mechanic carrying a duffel bag with tools he was able to salvage from his collapsed shop.

"But we were more prepared than during the 2010 earthquake."

Even fortified infrastructure did not prevent a high death toll in 2010, when a magnitude-8.8 quake hit south-central Chile.

It killed more than 500 people, destroyed 220,000 homes and washed away docks, riverfronts and seaside resorts.

The 2010 quake was 5.6 times more powerful in terms of energy released, according to the US Geological Survey.

And while the 2010 quake hit in the middle of the night, Wednesday's tremor was during an evening when many Chileans were outside for barbecues and other celebrations ahead of the country's Independence Day today.

But people were also more prepared. Schools increasingly have earthquake drills and society is filled with creative solutions to quakes, such as restaurant owners who nail wood railings to shelves to keep glasses and bottles from crashing down.

Many argue, however, that the biggest problem in 2010 was human error.

That quake hit just 11 days before the end of President Michelle Bachelet's first term and the government's national emergency office failed to issue a tsunami warning to evacuate the coast after the quake struck near the southern city of Concepcion.

Ms Bachelet and emergency officials made no such mistakes on Wednesday, issuing tsunami alerts soon after the quake hit, while c lasses across the country were cancelled for Thursday.

Residents said they received evacuation orders on their mobile phones minutes after the quake hit.

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