Wednesday April 16, 2014


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Tsunami sweeps away entire towns on Chile's devastated coast; security, aid scarce


People wait to catch goods thrown from a supermarket window during sporadic looting in Concepcion. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/ Natacha Pisarenko

TALCAHUANO, Chile - When the shaking stopped, Marioli Gatica and her extended family huddled in a circle on the floor of their seaside wooden home in this gritty port town, listening to the radio by a lantern's light.

They heard firefighters urging Talcahuano's citizens to stay calm and stay inside. They heard nothing of a tsunami - until it slammed into their house with an unearthly roar about an hour after Saturday's magnitude 8.8 quake.

Gatica's house exploded with water. She and her family were swept below the surface, swirling amid loose ship containers and other massive debris that smashed buildings into oblivion all around them.

"We were sitting there one moment and the next I looked up into the water and saw cables and furniture floating," Gatica said.

She clung to her 11-year-old daughter, Ninoska Elgueta, but the rush of water ripped the girl from her hands. Then the wave retreated as suddenly as it came.

Two of the giant containers crushed Gatica's home. A third landed seaward of where she floated, preventing the retreating tsunami from dragging her and other relatives away.

Soon Ninoska was back in her mother's arms - she had grabbed a tree branch to avoid being swept away and climbed down as soon as the sea receded.

Gatica's son, husband and 76-year-old father were OK as well, as were her sister and her family. The only relative missing was her 76-year-old mother, Nery Valdebenito, Gatica said as she waited in a hundreds-long line outside a school to report her losses.

"I think my mother is trapped beneath" the house, Gatica said.

As she spoke, firefighters with search dogs were examining the ruins of her home blocks away. Minutes later, the group leader drew his finger across his neck: No one alive under the house.

Such horrors abound along the devastated beach communities of Chile's south-central coast, which suffered the double tragedy Saturday of the earthquake and the tsunami it caused. Of the quake's 723 victims, most were in the wine-growing Maule region that includes Talcahuano, now a mud-caked, ravaged town of 180,000 just north of Concepcion.

Close to 80 per cent of Talcahuano's residents are homeless, with 10,000 homes uninhabitable and hundreds more destroyed, said Mayor Gaston Saavedra.

"The port is destroyed. The streets, collapsed. City buildings, destroyed," Saavedra said.

In Canada, the Foreign Affairs department said 520 Canadians known to be in Chile had been contacted as of Monday afternoon, while 337 others had not yet been located.

The department said its Emergency Operations Centre will continue to follow up with Canadian officials on the ground and with family and friends on whether contact is eventually established with these individuals.

"Canada stands ready to provide any necessary assistance to the people of Chile during this time of need," the department said on its website.

In Concepcion, the biggest city near the epicenter, rescuers heard the knocking of victims trapped inside a toppled 70-unit apartment building Monday and were drilling through thick concrete to reach them, said fire Commander Juan Carlos Subercaseux. By late Monday, firefighters had pulled 25 survivors and nine bodies from the structure.

Chile's defence minister has said the navy made a mistake by not immediately activating a tsunami warning. He said port captains who did call warnings in several coastal towns saved hundreds of lives.

The waves came too quickly for a group of 40 retirees vacationing at a seaside campground in the village of Pelluhue. They had piled into a bus that was swept out to sea, along with trucks and houses, when the tsunami surged 200 metres into the summer resort town.

As of Monday, firefighters said, five of the retirees' bodies had been recovered. At least 30 remained missing.

Most residents in Pelluhue, where 300 homes were destroyed, were aware of the tsunami threat. Street signs point to the nearest tsunami evacuation route.

"We ran through the highest part of town, yelling, 'Get out of your homes!"' said Claudio Escalona, 43, who fled his home near the campground with his wife and daughters, ages 4 and 6. "About 20 minutes later came three waves, two of them huge, about 6 metres each, and a third even bigger. That one went into everything."

"You could hear the screams of children, women, everyone," Escalona said. "There were the screams, and then a tremendous silence."

In the village of Dichato, teenagers drinking on the beach were the first to shout the warning when they saw a horseshoe-shaped bay empty about an hour after the quake. They ran through the streets, screaming. Police joined them, using megaphones.

The water rose steadily, surging above the second floors of homes and lifting them off their foundations. Cars were stacked three high in the streets. Miles inland along a river valley, cows munched Monday next to marooned boats, refrigerators, sofas and other debris.

"The maritime radio said there wouldn't be a tsunami," said survivor Rogilio Reyes, who was tipped off by the teenagers.

Dichato Mayor Eduardo Aguilera said 49 people were missing and 800 homes were destroyed. Some people fled to high ground, only to return too early and get caught by the tsunami, he said. Fourteen bodies were found by Monday. The only aid: A fire department water truck.

The World Health Organization said it expected the death toll to rise as communications improve. For survivors, it said access to health services will be a major challenge and noted that indigenous people living in adobe homes were most at risk.

In Geneva, UN humanitarian spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs said Chile was seeking temporary bridges, field hospitals, satellite phones, electric generators, damage assessment teams, water purification systems, field kitchens and dialysis centres.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she was bringing 20 satellite phones as a first piece of a much larger U.S. aid package. Argentina said it was sending six aircraft loaded with a field hospital, 55 doctors and water treatment plants, and Brazil said it was sending a field hospital and rescue teams.

Security was a major concern in Concepcion and other hard-hit towns. Most markets in Concepcion were ransacked by looters and people desperate for food, water, toilet paper, gasoline and other essentials Sunday, prompting authorities to send troops and impose an overnight curfew in the city. The interior ministry extended the Concepcion curfew to run from 8 p.m. Monday to noon Tuesday.

When a small convoy of armoured vehicles drove along a downtown street, bystanders applauded, shouting: "Finally! Finally!"

Throughout Talcahuano, stick-wielding residents barricaded streets with tires and rubble to protect their homes in the absence of law enforcement.

Downtown, eight suspected looters kneeled outside a pharmacy, their hands on their heads, as a police officer taunted them.

"Are you praying?" he shouted. "I don't hear you. Pray."

-With files from The Canadian Press


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