Death Toll Rises in Chile as Looting Hampers Rescue Efforts

The government has imposed a curfew on areas near the quake's epicenter.

ByABC News via logo
February 28, 2010, 6:54 AM

March 1, 2010— -- Following Saturday's devastating earthquake that hit Chile, authorities have imposed a curfew near the epicenter after widespread looting of supermarkets.

The 8.8 magnitude earthquake was one of the most intense ever measured, and the official death toll has risen to 711. Chilean President Michelle Bachelet has declared a "state of catastrophe" in central Chile, calling the quake a disaster of unthinkable magnitude.

The government deployed 10,000 troops to control the looting, according to the Associated Press. In some of the worst-hit areas, authorities used tear gas and water cannons to manage the crowd. In some cases the tear gas disrupted efforts to search for survivors.

Bachelet, who leaves office March 11, has ordered major supermarkets to give away essential supplies.

More than half a million homes were destroyed and the government says an estimated 2 million people are living on the streets.

"It shook very violently for about three or four minutes … all of my neighbors were running to the hills," Christopher Daniel Morgan, who was in Chile at the time of the earthquake, told "Good Morning America."

"The main destruction that there was in the central part of Concepcion ... buildings have toppled and entire houses were down and also there were bridges that have completely fallen," Morgan said.

Some coastal towns suffered a deadly double blow as the quake triggered giant waves that crashed into the coastline, carrying with them cars, boats and houses. In one coastal village, the death toll was 350.

"The tsunami destroyed almost everything on the seafront [and] the center of the town was completely destroyed. This means lots of people still haven't been accounted for," Constitucion Mayor Hugo Tilleria told state television, according to the AP.

Scientists said Saturday's earthquake was 500 times stronger than the quake that hit Haiti in January. But the recovery effort in Chile is likely to go easier because the country is better prepared -- with stronger infrastructure, stronger building codes and a more effective government. Chile is one of the most developed countries in Latin America and has a lot of experience with earthquakes.

The strongest earthquake ever measured -- a 9.5 magnitude -- struck Chile in 1960. Ever since, the country has required that new buildings be built with earthquakes in mind.

So far, no Americans have been confirmed among the dead. However, with communications in Chile still spotty, approximately 3,000 of about 18,000 Americans believed to be in the country have not been in contact with U.S. officials since the earthquake, according to the State Department.

"We are facing a catastrophe of such magnitude that has caused damages that will require gigantic efforts from every sector of our country -- both private and public sector," Bachelet told the media Sunday, according to an ABC News translation. "We face an emergency without precedent in the history of Chile in which we need fast and urgent answers.

Fearing that roofs or walls still could crash over them, or because they had no homes to return to, many people in Chile spent the first full night after the earthquake outdoors, ignoring government instructions to stay indoors if homes looked secure.

"They're afraid to go back in their homes, as anyone would be with aftershocks," said Tracy Reines, international response director of the American Red Cross. "The Chilean Red Cross has about 30 to 40 local Red Cross branches in the area, so they do everything from first aid to food, [and] soon will be emergency shelter and the like."

Helicopter footage early Sunday showed damage to highways, entire neighborhoods leveled and other areas flooded.