SANTIAGO - Chilean authorities on Wednesday were assessing the damage from a massive earthquake that struck off the northern coast, causing a small tsunami, but the impact looked mostly limited.
Over 900,000 people who evacuated the country's low-lying coastal areas returned home on Wednesday morning after authorities called off a tsunami alarm.
The 8.2 magnitude quake that shook northern Chile on Tuesday killed six people and triggered a tsunami that pounded the shore with 2-meter (7-foot) waves.
Authorities evaluated the damage on Wednesday as the ocean waves receded and daylight showed the full extent of the damage.
Mines in Chile, the world's No. 1 copper producer, mostly said they were functioning normally.
The arid, mineral-rich north is sparsely populated, with most of the population concentrated in the port towns of Iquique and Arica, near the Peruvian border.
In Peru, the earthquake led to temporary power outages and evacuations in some southern towns, but did not cause serious damage or injuries.
Chilean President Michelle Bachelet visited Iquique on Wednesday and praised people's orderly response to the emergency.
“We are here to recognize the calm behavior of the people of Iquique who showed great civic responsibility, as did those of Arica. I think you have given us all a tremendous example,” she said.
The government would put great effort into restoring services, she added.
Finance Minister Alberto Arenas said the government would place “no limit on the use of resources to address this emergency.”
Bachelet, who was sworn in as president less than a month ago, is likely conscious of the stinging criticism she faced near the tail-end of her first term in office in 2010, when the government was seen to have responded inadequately to a much bigger 8.8 quake and tsunami that killed over 500 people.
Nearly eight times more energy was released in the quake that struck Chile some four years ago, experts say.
It was too early to estimate financial losses, but they were expected to be much lower than the $30 billion from the 2010 quake, which affected the more densely populated central region, said earthquake expert Alexander Allmann at reinsurer Munich Re.
“The quake has caused severe damage to some buildings in the affected region, but in general the building standards in Chile are comparatively high, allowing buildings and infrastructure to withstand such quakes reasonably well,” said Allmann.
“The small tsunami triggered by the quake is not expected to have caused significant
Small fishing vessels in the ports looked to be among the worst affected.
“We struggled just to be able to get a bigger boat...and now look at it,” a woman from Iquique's fishing community, in tears, said in a video posted on Reuters.com.
Several smaller aftershocks, some as big as 5.2 magnitude, continued into Wednesday.
Although the tsunami alert was called off, the navy warned that high waves and strong currents could continue, and some ports in the area remained closed on Wednesday afternoon.
Landslides had also blocked eight roads and Iquique's hospital suffered some damage but otherwise most infrastructure was in good shape, emergency office Onemi said.
Nearly 300 prisoners took advantage of the emergency on Tuesday night to escape from a female penitentiary in Iquique. Some 131 had since voluntarily returned, Onemi said.
Thousands of miles away in Hawaii, residents were warned of possible sea level changes and strong currents that could pose a danger to swimmers and boaters.
The big one
Chileans live in one of the most earthquake-prone areas of the world. In 1960, southern Chile was hit by a 9.5 quake, the largest in modern history.
Residents in the area of the latest quake have been expecting “the big one” for many years. The Nazca and South American tectonic plates rub up against each other just off the coast of Iquique, where a “seismic gap” has been building up.
An unusually large number of tremors in the area in recent weeks had led authorities to reinforce emergency procedures, while residents bought rations, and prepared for an eventual evacuation.
However, Tuesday's quake was likely not 'the big one' they had anticipated, said Paul Earle, a seismologist at the U.S. Geological Survey National Earthquake Information Center.
“This earthquake was not large enough to release the stress on the whole area where they believe the seismic gap is,” he said.
“It's going to take some time to evaluate the effect of this earthquake on that region. But people should stay prepared."