Chile has evacuated one million people along its coastline after a powerful earthquake triggered tsunami waves of up to four-and-a-half metres and left at least five people dead.
The quake shook buildings in the capital city of Santiago, and panicked people gathered in streets lined with damaged buildings.
The epicentre was recorded offshore some but the tremor was also felt as far as Argentina and Brazil on the other side of the continent.
The navy reported waves of up to four-and-a-half metres near the port city of Coquimbo, where roads and homes were flooded.
“We’re going through a really grave situation with the tsunami. We have residential neighbourhoods that have flooded … the ocean has reached the downtown area,” Coquimbo mayor Cristian Galleguillos said.
Chile’s deputy interior minister Mahmoud Aleuy confirmed the death toll stood at five, saying the figures were preliminary.
President Michelle Bachelet said she would visit the affected zones on Thursday (local time).
“Once again we are forced to face a difficult blow from mother nature,” she told reporters.
The US Geological Survey (USGS) said the shallow offshore quake hit 228 kilometres north of Santiago, a city of 6.6 million people. Estimates of the quake’s magnitude varied from 7.9 to 8.3.
Central Choapa province, closest to the epicentre, was declared a catastrophe zone and placed under military rule.
Frequent aftershocks continued to shake Chile after the quake, which was felt as far away as Buenos Aires in Argentina, about 1,400 kilometres away.
Tsunami advisories were issued for parts of South America, Hawaii, California and French Polynesia, although waves were generally expected to be small.
Chile’s government urged residents to evacuate from the coastline as a precautionary measure, and officials reported that one million people fled.
“It’s going to be a long night,” said Ronny Perez in the inland Chilean city of Illapel, about 46km from the epicentre, which was without electricity or drinking water.
A 26-year-old woman was killed by a collapsing wall in Illapel and another person died from a heart attack in Santiago, according to media reports.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre also issued an alert for waves of between 0.3 to 1 metres for Japan, Antarctica, and most of the South Pacific, including New Zealand, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands.
In New Zealand, authorities urged residents in eastern coastal areas to stay out of the water and off beaches amid expected “unusually strong currents and unpredictable water flows near the shore”.
Katie McColl, an Australian student on exchange in the capital Santiago, said she sought shelter for an hour under the table in her house.
“So we got under the table and it kept going and it kept going and the house was moving,” she told the ABC.
“Luckily nothing fell or anything like that. So we’re all under the table and it kept going for about two or so minutes, which is a lot longer than they usually go for.”
Seismologists at the University of Chile said the epicentre was located about 500 kilometres north of Santiago.
The USGS said the quake struck just 232 kilometres from the city.
“The motion began lightly, then stronger and stronger,” Santiago resident Jeannette Matte said.
“We were on the 12th floor and we were very afraid because it was not stopping. First it was from side to side, then it was like little jumps.”
Chile’s state copper miner Codelco said workers at its Ventanas division were evacuated.
In April last year, a magnitude 8.2 earthquake in northern Chile killed six people and forced a million to leave their homes in the region around Iquique.
An earthquake measuring magnitude 8.8 struck off the coast of Chile’s Maule region on February 27, 2010.
It killed more than 500 people and inflicted an estimated $30 billion in damages.