Latin America braces for tsunami after Japan quake

  • 11/03/2011

By Michael Warren

Latin American governments told islanders and coastal residents to head for higher ground as the vast Pacific seaboard readied for a possible tsunami raised by Japan's magnitude-8.9 earthquake.

As the tsunami washed through the Hawaiian islands Friday with waves as high as 6 feet (almost 2 metres), coastal officials from Mexico to Chile were hauling boats from the sea, closing ports and schools and preparing to evacuate thousands of people.

On Chile's Easter Island, in the remote South Pacific about 3,500km west of the capital of Santiago, authorities evacuated 1,500 residents, or about a third of the population to the island's airport, which is safely 45 metres above sea level, Interior Minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter said.

The first tsunami-generated wave was expected to reach the island a little before 6pm local time (6pm EST; 2300 GMT), and the Chilean mainland about midnight Friday (10pm EST; 0300 Saturday GMT). By Friday evening, Chile ordered all mainland coastal areas subject to flooding evacuated.

At least two moai - the stunning head sculptures carved from volcanic rock by the islanders' Rapa Nui ancestors - could be hit, former governor Sergio Rapu said in a telephone interview from the island.

"Hanga Roa is oriented to the northwest, toward Japan and exposed to the wave. We're going to be there, just watching the arrival of the tsunami," Rapu said. "There are hotels exposed, and also some of the restored monuments are very close to the ocean ... This one will be in the middle of the day so we'll be able to see it."

Chile also alerted its citizens to prepare for possible evacuation to higher ground on the Robinson Crusoe islands, closer to the mainland.

The strongest action came from Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, who declared a state of emergency and ordered people on the Galapagos Islands and the coast of the mainland to seek higher ground. He ordered schools closed and said the military would guard property.

Ecuador's largest city, Guayaquil, is on the coast, and about 15,000 people live in the Galapagos, a UNESCO protected natural heritage site popular with tourists about 1,000km off Ecuador's coast.

A magnitude-8.8 earthquake on February 27, 2010, caused a tsunami that devastated coastal communities in Chile after the country's navy and emergency preparedness office mistakenly told people there was no danger.

Many evacuated anyway, but many of the 524 people killed were caught in the massive waves.

President Sebastian Pinera called on Chileans to remain calm and attend school and work normally despite Friday's alert, and assured Chileans the government is now prepared.

"We now have a much better system," Pinera said during a visit to the emergency system's headquarters. "A year ago I was here and I saw what all Chileans saw, a real chaos. There was no information, no coordination, and that led to us losing many lives."

Far to the north, Mexico closed its major Pacific cargo port of Manzanillo and the Communications and Transportation Department reported several cargo ships and a cruise ship decided to wait out a possible tsunami at sea rather than risk possible damage in a harbor. Officials suspended classes for students at some low-lying schools in the resort city of Acapulco, and urged all Mexicans to stay away from Pacific coast beaches.

Heavy swells, some of them as high as 6 feet (2 metres), rolled through the port and marinas of Cabo San Lucas, a resort on Mexico's Baja California peninsula, rocking boats in the harbor but not breaching the marinas' seawalls.

The Mexican navy said it had detected offshore swells of more than 70cm related to the tsunami.

Swells created by tsunamis can increase in height tenfold or more by the time they break as waves along shallow shorelines, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

In South America, Colombia's government put 16 low-lying towns and cities on alert for a possible evacuation, national disaster director Luz Amanda Pulido said. Colombia's biggest coastal city is the port of Buenaventura, with 400,000 inhabitants.

The Colombian navy commander, Adm. Alvaro Echandia, said officials expected tsunami-related waves to reach the country's shores around 7pm (7pm EST; 2400 GMT).

In Peru, the Ministry of Education closed schools for thousands of children living near the sea. Authorities also temporarily closed beaches popular with tourists including Lima's "Costa Verde," ordering seaside businesses shuttered. Dozens evacuated their homes in flood-prone areas of Callao the port adjacent Lima.

Fifty-five percent of Peru's 28 million people live along the coast.


source: newshub archive