The government reported five deaths and several serious injuries. Landslides blocked roads in some areas, power failed for thousands, an airport was damaged and several businesses caught fire. Thousands of people were spending the night sleeping rough in the hills and a tsunami advisory was issued for Hawaii out in the Pacific Ocean as waves fanned out from the epicentre.
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 the mayor reported homes were destroyed. The quake shook modern buildings in nearby Peru and in Bolivia’s high altitude capital of La Paz.
The Iquique governor, Gonzalo Prieto, told Radio Cooperativa that two people were known to have died after the quake hit at 8.46pm 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 but were lifted for elsewhere, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre said. “We regard the coast line of Chile as still dangerous, so we’re maintaining the warning,” geophysicist Gerard Fryer told the Associated Press.
Chilean authorities said their warning would stay in force through the night.
The US geological survey initially reported the quake at 8.0 but later upgraded the magnitude. It said the quake struck 61 miles (99km) north-west of the Chilean city of Iquique at 8.46pm, hitting a region that has been rocked by numerous quakes over the past two weeks.
The quake was so strong that Bolivia’s capital felt the equivalent of a 4.5 magnitude tremor despite the epicentre being about 290 miles away.
At least eight strong aftershocks followed in the first few hours, including one measuring 6.2. 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 reportedly blocked by landslides, causing traffic jams among people leaving the coast. Coastal residents of northern Chile evacuated calmly as waves measuring almost two metres (six and a half feet) struck their cities ahead of a tsunami that was expected to come ashore later.
Evacuations were ordered in Peru where waves two metres above normal forced about 200 people to leave the seaside town of Boca del Rio. There were no injuries or major damage, said Colonel 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 Centre 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 at 3.24am Hawaiian 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 event 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 16 March that caused more than 100,000 people to briefly evacuate low-lying areas, although no tsunami happened and there was little physical damage from the shaking.