In 1960, the Chilean city of Valdivia, about 800 km south of the capital of Santiago, suffered the greatest magnitude earthquake ever recorded - 9.5 on the Richter scale - and much of the country suffered from a subsequent tsunami. Early this morning, the city of Concepción, about 500 km south of the Chilean capital, came dangerously close to that number, being hit by a temblor measuring as high as 8.8 hit. In this region, where many city inhabitants still use wood for cooking and heating, the danger of fire is as great, or greater, than that of falling buildings.
Fortunately, so far at least, the death toll of 78 is far lower than might be expected in other, more densely populated parts of the world - Santiago, Chile’s only megacity, is distant from the apparent epicenter. Nevertheless, Santiago’s Aeropuerto Internacional Arturo Merino Benítez (pictured above) suffered enough damage in the passenger terminal - fallen walkways and many broken windows - that it’s closed until further notice. Authorities are diverting flights to other Chilean airports and to the Argentine city of Mendoza, just across the Andes from Santiago.
Likewise, several overpasses have collapsed along Ruta 5, the country’s main north-south highway, and other roadways have bent or buckled - the television network TVN has shown cars hitting unexpected bumps at high speed but, to this point, none of them has lost control. Over the past couple decades, the quality of anti-seismic construction here has improved, but there are vulnerable older buildings in neighborhoods such as Barrio Brasil, where the Basílica del Salvador - damaged in a 1986 quake - has been propped up by a bulwark that collapsed yesterday and demolished automobiles parked alongside it.
Apparently the quake has had a lesser impact on tourist-oriented areas such as the southern lakes district, around Puerto Varas and Puerto Montt, though it was felt there. Other major destinations, such as San Pedro de Atacama and Torres del Paine, are well beyond the damage zone.
Because of the epicenter’s depth, there appears to be little chance of a tsunami along the Chilean coast, but the quake could trigger big waves in North America and across the Pacific. On the Juan Fernández archipelago, about 600 km off the Chilean coast, a mini-tsunami has apparently forced the inhabitants of San Juan Bautista, the only town, into the nearby hills.
The United States Geological Survey has just published an online summary of the quake, which has been followed by aftershocks as high as 6.9. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has issued a tsunami advisory for coastal California and Alaska, and a tsunami warning for the state of Hawaii.