A major earthquake of magnitude 8.3 struck off the coast of Chile on Tuesday, triggering a tsunami, causing landslides that blocked highways and leading to five deaths. Officials said the dead included people who were crushed by collapsing walls or were killed by heart attacks.
The shaking loosed landslides that blocked roads, power failed for thousands, an airport was damaged and several businesses caught fire. About 300 inmates escaped from a women's prison in the city of Iquique, and Chile's military was sending a planeload of special forces to help police guard against looting.
The US Geological Survey initially reported the quake at 8.0, but later upgraded the magnitude to 8.2. It was further upgraded by Chile's National Seismological Centre to 8.3.
It said the quake struck 99 kilometres northwest of the Chilean city of Iquique at 8:46pm local time, hitting a region that has been rocked by numerous quakes over the past two weeks.
The quake was so strong that the shaking experienced in Bolivia's capital about 470 kilometres away was the equivalent of a 4.5-magnitude tremor, authorities there said.
At least eight 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.
Coastal residents of northern Chile evacuated calmly as waves measuring almost 2 metres (6 ½ feet) struck their cities ahead of a tsunami that was expected to come ashore later.
Evacuations also were ordered in Peru, where waves two metres 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 America's Pacific coast, and Chile's 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 Chile's central coast, just before midnight local time.
Authorities in the US state of Hawaii were on alert, but no tsunami watch was issued. The tsunami centre said any higher waves would hit Hawaii starting 3:24am Hawaii Standard Time.
Chile is one of the world's most earthquake-prone countries. 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.
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.
Hundreds of earthquakes have shaken Chile's far-northern coast in the past two weeks, 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 unnerving 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, although no tsunami materialized and there was little physical damage from the shaking.
Chile mines dodge earthquake damage
Mines in world No. 1 copper producer Chile appear to have emerged unscathed from the major quake.
Chile's Collahuasi copper mine and port have not reported any problems so far following the 8.2-magnitude earthquake, Chief Executive Officer Jorge Gomez told Reuters.
A joint venture led by Anglo American and Glencore Xstrata, Collahuasi was one of the big mines closest to the epicenter.
State copper miner Codelco and London-listed Antofagasta both said their mines were functioning normally.
Still, world No.1 copper producer Codelco said it had evacuated workers from its Ventanas smelting and refinery operation due to a government-ordered tsunami evacuation order.
There were also lingering questions about whether export-dependent Chile's ports might be damaged, which would harm metal shipments.
"I would expect the largest danger is to infrastructure, namely ports and roads, which could obviously affect exports," said Morgan Stanley analyst Joel Crane in Melbourne.
Benchmark London Metal Exchange (LME) copper prices jumped to $US6,728.75 a tone.
Traders however said it was a kneejerk reaction and further gains were likely to be dampened by ample supply and slow demand in China.