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Hundreds Dead in Peru Earthquake
Tens of Thousands Displaced, Some in Isolated Areas; Capital Is Largely Spared

By Lucien Chauvin
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, August 17, 2007

LIMA, Peru, Aug. 16 -- Victims of Peru's deadliest earthquake in more than 35 years were pulled from the rubble of adobe huts and dust-covered buildings on Thursday, as tens of thousands of people displaced by the disaster sought shelter.

Authorities said 437 people had been killed and more than 800 injured in the 8.0-magnitude earthquake on Wednesday. The casualty figures were likely to rise as relief efforts spread out from urban areas and into the region's isolated mountainside communities.

More than 16,000 homes were seriously damaged in the quake, nearly all of them in the southern cities of Pisco and Ica.

The hardest-hit towns were without electricity and effectively cut off from the rest of the country. Sizable chunks of the Pan-American Highway, which travels along the Peruvian coast linking most of the country's major cities, were destroyed during the temblor. Relief workers said it could take days to reach some areas.

On the ground, residents were in need of blankets, clothing and food. In the city of Chincha, near Pisco, many of those displaced by the quake had congregated in a municipal soccer stadium.

"There are a lot of people still in the stadium," one resident, Maribel Valle Umbrosio, said in a telephone interview. "They don't have anything left and need urgent help."

Valle Umbrosio said her house was not seriously damaged in the quake, but she and other residents whose homes were apparently spared slept overnight in the stadium, fearing the consequences of powerful aftershocks. There had been more than 360 of them by 5 p.m. Thursday, authorities said, some as strong as magnitude-6.

Lima, the capital, was largely unscathed by the quake, whose epicenter was 95 miles to the south. Some buildings sustained minor damage; only one death was reported. Still, when the temblor struck at about 6:40 p.m. Wednesday, buildings swayed, the streets rolled like an ocean wave, and people screamed in panic.

The shaking lasted for two minutes. The newspaper La Republica captured the moment in a banner headline in its Thursday editions: "Two Minutes of Terror."

Sergio Alvarez, an emergency relief coordinator for Oxfam International, arrived in Pisco, a city of 116,000 people, aboard an air force flight about six hours after the earthquake. At the time, he said, the city still looked like "one big dust cloud." He estimated that up to 60 percent of the city's buildings could be permanently damaged.

"The immediate need is to get people food, water and temporary shelter," he said in a telephone interview. "We need to start thinking about the long term."

Peru's Civil Defense Institute, which supervises disaster relief, established an air bridge between Lima and Pisco, with air force planes ferrying tons of supplies to some of the affected areas and returning to the capital with seriously injured victims. Several hospitals in Ica were damaged in the earthquake.

According to local news reports, at least 200 people had been buried in the rubble of a church in Pisco. A church in Ica was also reported to have collapsed.

"The dead are scattered by the dozens on the streets," Pisco Mayor Juan Mendoza told Lima radio station CPN. "We don't have lights, water, communications. Most houses have fallen. Churches, stores, hotels -- everything is destroyed."

Local officials reported bands of looters raiding homes and stores. In Chincha, a penitentiary collapsed, setting free more than 600 prisoners. Police said that by midday, fewer than 5 percent of the convicts had been rearrested.

The earthquake was one of the strongest in Peru's recent history. There have been two other powerful earthquakes this decade, one in 2001 along the southern coast and another two years ago in the northern jungle. Both were stronger than magnitude-7, but the damage inflicted was not as extensive as that caused by Wednesday's disaster -- the deadliest earthquake in Peru since one killed 66,000 people in 1970.

President Alan García and most of his cabinet ministers traveled south to inspect the damage and declare a state of emergency. "There has been a good international response even without Peru asking for it, and they've been very generous," García said during a stop in Pisco.

The U.S. Agency for International Development said it would provide an initial $100,000 for immediate emergency needs. The Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort is in Ecuador and could quickly sail to Peru if asked, U.S. officials said. Colombian President Álvaro Uribe announced that he would travel to Lima to help in relief efforts.

García also voiced frustration with the country's communications system; land and mobile phone services collapsed for several hours after the earthquake.

"I have proposed that we change the system used by these companies," he said before heading to Ica. "Our country is prone to seismic activity and something like this could happen at any time."

Staff writers Michael A. Fletcher, Aruna Jain and Steve Vogel in Washington contributed to this report.

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