SANTIAGO, Chile — A powerful magnitude-8.2 earthquake struck Tuesday night off northern Chile, setting off a small tsunami that forced evacuations along the country’s entire Pacific coast. Officials reported five deaths and several serious injuries, but the area apparently escaped major damage: Landslides blocked roads, power failed for thousands, an airport was damaged and several businesses burned.
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. Some homes made of adobe were destroyed and 90 percent of customers were without power, authorities said.
The quake also shook modern buildings in nearby Peru and in Bolivia’s high-altitude capital of La Paz.
Interior Minister Rodrigo Penailillo attributed the five deaths to heart attacks or being crushed.
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.
U.S. officials say they’ve found no imminent threat of a tsunami along the coasts of Hawaii, Alaska, California, Oregon or Washington, but the danger is still under evaluation.
The U.S. Geological Survey initially reported the quake at 8.0, but later upgraded the magnitude. It said the quake struck 61 miles northwest of Iquique, in 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 290 miles away was the equivalent of a 4.5-magnitude tremor, authorities there said.
More than 10 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.
Chilean Interior Minister Rodrigo Penailillo said President Michelle Bachelet was closely watching the situation and was ready to take “any measures” to ensure people’s safety. Hundreds of soldiers were being deployed in the quake zone, and a flight would be leaving soon with 100 special forces on board, he added.
“We have taken action to ensure public order in the case of Iquique, where we’ve had a massive escape of more than 300 female prisoners from the Iquique jail, so that the armed forces and police can coordinate and provide tranquility and security to the residents,” he said.
Some roads in northern Chile were blocked by landslides, causing traffic jams among people leaving the coast. But coastal residents remained calm as they headed inland while waves measuring almost 2 meters (6 ½ feet) struck their cities.
Evacuations also were ordered in Peru, where waves 2 meters 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.
The latest activity began with a magnitude-6.7 quake on March 16 that caused more than 100,000 people to briefly evacuate low-lying areas.
Hundreds of smaller quakes followed in the weeks since, 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.