Chile death toll rises to 723, rescue operations continue

13:47, March 02, 2010      

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Chile's National Emergency Office on Monday raised the death toll from Chile's Saturday earthquake to 723, saying that most of those who died were in the rural coastal region of Maule, rather than the worst hit major cities of Santiago and Concepcion.

At least eight aftershocks that registered over five on the Richter scale occurred on Monday in the center-south zone of Chile, after the devastating 8.8-magnitude quake on Saturday.

The U.S. Geological Survey said that the epicenters of three aftershocks, measuring 5.3 and 5.2 magnitudes respectively, were in the region of O'Higgins, some 120 km south of Santiago.

In Bio Bio region, the epicenter of the earthquake, some 400 km south of Santiago, three aftershocks were also registered, measuring 5.3 and 5.0 magnitudes respectively.

According to the experts, the aftershocks will continue for at least one month or longer in the affected zone, but will be reduced in intensity and frequency.

The major quake on Saturday, which registered 8.8 on the Richter scale, appears to have caused less damage than the subsequent tsunami in Chile, according to Francisco Vidal, Chile's defense minister.

He apologized at an early Monday press conference for the government's negligence of the tsunami that hit Chile's coastal lines following the earthquake.

The tectonic movement is the biggest since 1950, when Chile suffered a 9.5-magnitude quake, the worst ever recorded in human history. Being a country constantly attacked by earthquakes, Chile and its people are well-drilled in emergency procedures.

The emergency office, part of the interior ministry, said that Chilean navy ships had already reached some coastal settlements in Maule, where at least 544 people were reported dead, and in the neighboring region of Bio Bio, the second worst hit, there were 64 deaths.

The office said it had sent a 20-bed field hospital to Maule capital Talca. Four army helicopters are evacuating the injured out of Bio Bio, and a Hercules C-130 transport aircraft is bringing in aid. Trucks carrying drinking water are moving into Maule, where normal water services have been destroyed.

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, who leaves office on March 11, has sent a total of 7,000 troops to Bio Bio and Maule. Many of them are already in Concepcion where desperate citizens have begun raiding shops and warehouses for food and drinking water. The government declared martial law there on Sunday.

Chilean media said that at least 160 people had been arrested and one person shot in Concepcion as soldiers and police tried to enforce a curfew that began at nightfall Sunday.

Bachelet also said the government would raise 15 million Chilean pesos (28,680 U.S. dollars) to house thousands of citizens that had lost their homes.

"We are making all the efforts needed to care for the most urgent cases and normalize the general situation of the country as soon as possible," Bachelet said.

Six people were killed Monday when the small plane they were on board crashed while carrying aid to Concepcion. The Piper PA 31 crashed at 12:28 p.m. local time (1528 GMT) on its way from Santiago to the Tome area near Concepcion.

Rescuers pulled 23 people alive from the rubble of an apartment building in Concepcion on Monday, along with seven bodies, while dozens are still buried underneath. Residents slammed the building's contractor firm Socovil for poor construction, but the firm said it complied with all standard codes while building the apartment.

While the quake released 1,000 times more energy than the Jan. 12 quake that hit Haiti, Chile's predicted final death toll is less than 0.5 percent of the 300,000 total deaths forecast for the Caribbean island nation.

Chile's population density is only 23 people per square kilometer compared with 367 in Haiti. Chile is also richer and better organized for earthquakes. It has had 20 years of democratically elected governments since 1990 when a left-wing coalition took over from a military dictatorship that had ruled the country since 1973.

Source: Xinhua
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