Latin Americans evacuate coastal areas

SANTIAGO, Chile — Islanders and coastal residents along Latin America’s Pacific seaboard moved to higher ground Friday as a precaution against possible tsunami following the superquake that bashed northeastern Japan with huge waves.

SANTIAGO, Chile — Islanders and coastal residents along Latin America’s Pacific seaboard moved to higher ground Friday as a precaution against possible tsunami following the superquake that bashed northeastern Japan with huge waves.

Officials, however, reported only slightly higher waters washing ashore in Mexico’s Baja California, Honduras’ coast, Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands and Chile’s Easter Island.

As the tsunami triggered off Japan washed past the Hawaiian islands early in the day with waves as high as 6 feet (almost 2 metres), Latin Americans rushed to haul boats from the sea, close ports and schools and evacuated several hundred thousand people.

Heavy swells rolled through the port and marinas of the Baja California resort of Cabo San Lucas, rocking boats at anchor, but they did not top seawalls or bring any reports of damage.

Mexican officials closed the major cargo port of Manzanillo and officials said some cargo ships and a cruise liner had decided to delay entering ports to avoid possible problems from any rough water. Classes were suspended at some low-lying schools in the resort city of Acapulco, and officials urged people to stay away from beaches.

Officials in the Central American nation of Honduras said waves along its coast were little changed from the normal three feet and they lifted the country’s tsunami alert at 7 p.m.

On Chile’s Easter Island, in the remote South Pacific about 2,200 miles (3,500 kilometres) west of the capital of Santiago, residents and tourists moved to high ground. Many took shelter at the island’s airport, some 150 feet (45 metres) above sea level, Interior Minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter said. The island’s electricity was partly shut down as a precaution.

But an offshore monitor registered only minimal effects from the tsunami Friday evening, and islanders watching the sea from higher ground could see nothing unusual, former governor Sergio Rapu said in a telephone interview from the island, where the only population centre, Hanga Roa, directly faces Japan. Also exposed were several of the stunning moai head sculptures carved from volcanic rock by the islanders’ Rapa Nui ancestors.

The tsunami hit Easter Island at low tide, and the slight impact was welcome news for the Chilean mainland, which expected tsunami swells about midnight (10 p.m. EST; 0300 Saturday GMT), also at near-low tides.

By Friday evening, Chile ordered all mainland coastal areas subject to flooding evacuated as a precaution nonetheless, including the port of Talcahuano, which was devastated by last year’s tsunami in Chile. Projections put the port city, like Easter Island, in the path of the most powerful waves spawned by Japan’s quake.

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.

Correa said Friday evening that the first waves of the tsunami had hit the Galapagos and “apparently the effects are imperceptible.”

He cautioned, however, that a tsunami consists of multiple surges, the first of which are not the strongest. So as a cautionary measure he was keeping the 242,000 people evacuated from low-lying areas on higher ground until 9 p.m. local time.

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 600 miles (1,000 kilometres) off Ecuador’s coast.

Ecuador also suspended oil exports and halted operations at its La Libertad refinery near the ocean, though its main refinery continued to function.

A magnitude-8.8 earthquake on Feb. 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 co-ordination, and that led to us losing many lives.”

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 the first waves were expected around 8 p.m. (8 p.m. EST; 0100 GMT Saturday).

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 per cent of Peru’s 28 million people live along the coast.

All of Peru’s ports were shut until “maritime reports indicate normality along Peru’s coast,” port authority director Frank Boyle said.


Associated Press writers Mark Stevenson in Mexico City, Franklin Briceno in Lima, Peru, Frank Bajak in Bogota, Colombia, Diego Mendez in San Salvador, El Salvador, and Marianela Jimenez in San Jose, Costa Rica, contributed to this report.

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