Hundreds of thousands of people in Chile are struggling to find shelter, food and drinking water after one of the most powerful earthquakes ever recorded struck the country.
Chilean President Michelle Bachelet last night announced that the death toll had leapt to 708, as state TV said 300 people may have perished in the small coastal city of Constitucion alone. The earthquake struck in the early hours of Saturday, measuring 8.8 on the Richter scale, and yesterday government officials worried that as many as two million people had been affected or displaced as a result.
But there was good news as the tsunami warning for the entire Pacific Basin was lifted, with no major loss of life reported.
The Chilean government continued to turn down international offers of assistance. But while life was returning gradually to something close to normality in the capital, reports from cities like Constitucion and the much larger city of Concepcion revealed widespread damage to buildings, roads and bridges. The risk of panic and disorder was highlighted by a number of reports of looting.
In that same city, the closest large metropolis to the epicentre of the quake, rescue workers toiled with jack-hammers and small bulldozers to pull residents out of a recently completed 15-storey apartment block that had toppled onto its back. Officials said as many as 80 people remained trapped in the wreckage. Twenty-five people had escaped alive.
Rosa Molino said she and her family spent Saturday night outdoors, huddled on the patio of her heavily damaged house in the village of Portozuelo, about 30 miles from the coast. Recalling the moment of the earthquake, she said: “I got out of bed and was immediately knocked to the ground by the shaking. My grandson came and helped me out of the house.”
Ms Molino said around 60 houses were completely destroyed in her village, and basics like water and bread were being sold at prices at least four times higher than normal. Ruptured power and water lines as well as impassable roads and bridges spelled days of worsening conditions.
The country's main airport began to accept international flights operated by Chile's LAN Airlines. Most of the serious damage in Santiago was visible on older buildings, including churches and the main university. Newer structures, built to stricter anti-seismic codes, suffered mostly cracks and broken windows only.
Tsunami alerts sent hundreds of thousands of people away from their shoreline homes in countries across the Pacific Ocean at the weekend. But even in those places where the danger had seemed elevated, including Hawaii and Japan, the waves, once they arrived, were relatively small and did little damage.