SANTIAGO, April 2- A powerful 8.2 magnitude earthquake hit Chile’s Pacific coast, killing at least five people as tsunami waves of more than two meters lashed the shore.
Panicked residents poured into the streets after the authorities ordered them to flee to higher ground, while President Michelle Bachelet declared parts of northern Chile hit by the offshore quake to be disaster zones.
“The street lights were busted, people ran terrified. After the earthquake there were several aftershocks,” Veronica Castillo told AFP from Arica, 1,000 miles north of the Chilean capital Santiago.
Military officials will be sent the areas to prevent looting and disorder, she said.
In the northern city of Iquique, closest to the epicenter, some 300 prisoners escaped from a jail amid the chaos triggered by the big tremor, which lasted two minutes.
The quake struck at 8:46 pm local time (2346 GMT) at a depth of 10 kilometers (six miles), 83 kilometers from Iquique on Chile’s northern coast, the United States Geological Survey said.
The Hawaii based Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued an alert for residents living along more than 3,000 miles (4,800 kilometers) of coastline in South and Central America.
It said waves of more than six feet (two meters) had been generated.
Chilean Interior Minister Rodrigo Penailillo said at least five people were killed and three seriously injured. He said late Tuesday the tsunami alert would last at least another six hours.
Disaster relief agency ONEMI’s director Ricardo Toro said the quake had not caused major damage.
Still, the control tower at Iquique airport was hit, as were roads out of the city. Power cuts in the city of Arica left 80 percent of it in the dark.
Amid Chile’s evacuation order, its Ecuadoran and Peruvian counterparts also issued warnings.
Ecuador later reduced its alert from red to amber but maintained the higher level of vigilance on the exposed Galapagos Islands out in the Pacific.
Tremors were felt as far inland as Bolivia, and the quake was followed by a weaker 6.2 magnitude aftershock.
– Power cuts, buildings burn –
In Chile, Toro said the first waves of the tsunami had reached Pisagua, on the northern coast, and were expected to travel south over five hours.
CNN showed footage of streets full of panicked people and some buildings burning brightly against the night sky.
The rush to evacuate to safe areas caused traffic jams, but no cuts in telephone service or drinking water were reported. There were power outages in some areas.
Chile’s Deputy Interior Minister Mahmud Aleuy reported that in Iquique the sea had withdrawn 2.5 meters from the coast, a prelude to the arrival of a dangerous surge.
“Everyone along our coast should be alert and ready,” Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa said on Twitter.
In Peru, the southern coastal area was also put on alert while roads along the coast were closed, said the mayor of the capital, Susana Villaran.
“This is a warning for the population to take all precautionary measures,” Peruvian naval commander Colbert Ruiz told AFP.
“An alert means being on watch but does not confirm the arrival of a tsunami,” he said. “So far, there is nothing.”
Honduras in Central America also declared a tsunami alert, but Nicaragua called off one it had declared earlier.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center also issued a warning for Colombia and Panama, and “watches” for at least six other countries.
Chile is one of the most seismically active countries in the world, and a large earthquake has long been expected in the north of the country.
In February 2010, central and southern Chile were hit by a powerful earthquake of 8.8-magnitude followed by a tsunami that devastated dozens of towns.
The quake left more than 500 dead and $30 billion in damage to infrastructure.
The same coastal area has been the scene of numerous quakes in recent days.
On Sunday, a 6.0 magnitude earthquake struck, followed by at least two moderate aftershocks.