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Magnitude-8.2 Earthquake Strikes Northern Chile

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SANTIAGO, Chile (CBSNewYork/AP) – A powerful magnitude-8.2 earthquake struck off northern Chile on Tuesday night, setting off a small tsunami that forced evacuations along the country’s entire Pacific coast.

As CBS 2’s Hazel Sanchez reported, the earthquake was centered 61 miles northwest of the city of Iquique when it struck at 8:46 p.m.

Officials reported two deaths and several serious injuries, but the area apparently escaped major damage as landslides blocked roads, power failed for thousands, an airport was damaged and several businesses caught fire.

Meanwhile, about 300 inmates escaped from a women’s prison in the city of Iquique, and officials said Chile’s military was sending a planeload of special forces to guard against looting.

In the city of Arica, 86 miles from the quake’s epicenter, hospitals were treating minor injuries, and some homes made of adobe were destroyed and 90 percent of customers were without power, authorities said.

Iquique Gov. Gonzalo Prieto told Radio Cooperativa that two people were known to have died after the quake hit at 8:46 p.m. and several others had serious injuries. The mayor of Tarapaca attributed the deaths to heart attacks.

Hours later, tsunami warnings or watches remained in effect for the coasts of Peru and Chile, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said. Shortly before midnight, Chile’s Emergency Office said its tsunami watch would remain in effect for six more hours, meaning hundreds of thousands of people along the coast would not sleep in their beds. Authorities in the U.S. state of Hawaii were on alert, but no tsunami watch was issued.

The U.S. Geological Survey initially reported the quake at 8.0, but later upgraded the magnitude. It hit a region that has been rocked by numerous quakes over the past two weeks.

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 Bolivia’s capital about 290 miles away was the equivalent of a 4.5-magnitude tremor, authorities there said. The quake was also felt in Peru.

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.

As of 11 p.m., evacuations were under way along coastal areas. Some people got in cars, but many walked.

Some roads in northern Chile were blocked by landslides, causing traffic jams among people leaving the coast.

The residents evacuated calmly as waves measuring almost 6 1/2 feet struck their cities ahead of a tsunami that was expected to come ashore later.

Evacuations also were ordered in Peru, where waves 6 1/2 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 America’s Pacific coast — with a threat of tsunami activity in Chile, Peru, and Ecuador.

Chile’s Emergency Office also 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 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 on the so-called ring of fire, an arc of volcanoes and fault lines in the Pacific Basin that is prone to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

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.

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