Powerful Quake Kills At Least 48 in Peru

By Lucien Chauvin
Special to the Washington Post
Thursday, August 16, 2007

LIMA, Peru, Aug. 16 -- Peru was hit by a strong earthquake early Wednesday night, killing at least 48 people and injuring 200, according to early reports from civil defense units.

The U.S. Geological Survey reported that the 7.9 magnitude earthquake was centered about 90 miles southeast of Lima, the capital, and struck at 6:40 p.m. The town of Ica, about 175 miles south of Lima, appeared to be the hardest hit, though the temblor rippled streets and damaged buildings in Lima.

A tsunami warning was issued for Peru, Chile, Ecuador and Colombia. Several coastal cities were preparing to evacuate Wednesday night as a result of the warnings.

More than 100 aftershocks continued to rattle the area by the end of Wednesday. Hernando Tavera, head of seismology at the Geophysical Institute of Peru, said Peruvians should be prepared for more.

"A great deal of energy is released during an earthquake. It is a process that does not end immediately, but will continue for some time," he said.

In Ica, one hospital partially collapsed while others overflowed with victims. The National Police reported incidents of looting of homes and stores in Ica. In Chincha province, 100 miles south of Lima, inmates at the Tambo de Mora prison took advantage of the chaos to escape, according to the state news agency Andina.

President Alan Garcia declared a state of emergency in Ica and ordered the country's 100,000 police officers to report to duty. Schools will be closed in Peru on Thursday so principals can evaluate damage. Mayors have been ordered to inspect public buildings for structural problems.

The quake struck as Peruvians were beginning to make their way home from work. The streets in Lima were immediately filled with people fleeing buildings and crying.

"I was not scared, but people were terrified, screaming like the world was going to end. There were people praying," said Luis Pimentel Pinto, owner of an antique store in the upscale Miraflores district.

People throughout Lima grabbed blankets and pillows, opting to sleep in city parks instead of taking chances inside buildings.

The night sky in the city was illuminated several times by massive short circuits at power plants. Several districts in the city of nearly 8 million people lost power and the telecommunications network, both mobile and land lines, collapsed.

In a speech to the nation, Garcia offered his condolences to the families of the dead but also berated the telecom companies for the failed service. The quake was a lesson, he said, and the government would not let the phone system collapse again.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company