A powerful magnitude-8.2 earthquake struck off Chile's northern coast Tuesday night, causing landslides and setting off a small tsunami that forced an evacuation of coastal areas. Chilean authorities reported six dead and three people seriously injured in the country's north, according to Reuters.
Officials said the dead included people who were crushed by collapsing walls or were killed by heart attacks.
The government evacuated Chile's northern coast and President Michelle Bachelet declared the area a disaster zone, promising troops and police reinforcements to maintain public order while damage was repaired after landslides blocked roads.
Lauding Chile's initial response to the quake, Bachelet said in a televised address: "The government will work for as long as necessary to confront this emergency."
In the city of Arica, the mayor reported some minor injuries and said some homes made of adobe were destroyed. The quake shook modern buildings in nearby Peru and in Bolivia's capital, La Paz.
About 300 prisoners took advantage of the emergency and escaped from a female penitentiary in Iquique. About 26 of the women were soon recaptured, authorities said, while security forces fanned out through the area amid reports of power outages.
The U.S. Geological Survey reported that the quake struck 61 miles northwest of the city of Iquique at 8:46 p.m. local time (7:46 p.m. EDT), hitting 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 magnitude-4.5 tremor, authorities there said.
As of Wednesday afternoon, 118 aftershocks had followed the initial quake, including a magnitude-6.2 tremor. 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 blocked by landslides, causing traffic jams among people leaving the coast.
Coastal residents of northern Chile evacuated calmly as waves measuring more than 6 feet struck their cities ahead of a tsunami that was expected to come ashore later.
Evacuations also were ordered in Peru, where waves 6 feet 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.
A tsunami alert was issued by the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center 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 U.S. state of Hawaii were on alert, but no tsunami watch was issued. The tsunami center said any higher waves would hit Hawaii starting 3:24 a.m. Hawaii Standard Time.
The advisory level issued for Hawaii by the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center is less significant than a tsunami warning, which would be prompted by expectations of widespread flooding.
"It's clear that we're not going to go to a warning for Hawaii," said Gerard Fryer, a geophysicist with the center. "What we're really worried about is currents ... Occasionally you get a larger wave so it sweeps up the beach or something. If you're not ready for it you can get into difficulty, and if you're in the water you can get banged about."
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 tremor 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 March 16 that caused more than 100,000 people to briefly evacuate low-lying areas, although no tsunami materialized and there was little physical damage from the shaking.
Al Jazeera and wire services