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Rescuers Search For Survivors Of Chile Quake

The rubble of a collpased bridge in Santiago after earthquake on February 27.
CONCEPCION, Chile (Reuters) -- Chileans fearful of aftershocks camped outside as rescuers battled to find survivors of a huge earthquake that shattered roads and airports and triggered a tsunami across the Pacific.

An 8.8 magnitude quake, one of the world's most powerful in a century, hammered Chile on Saturday, killing more than 300 people as it toppled buildings and mangled highways.

While the apparently low death toll could be considered a lucky escape from such a strong temblor, it dealt a serious blow to infrastructure in the world's No. 1 copper producer and one of Latin America's most stable economies.

Two million people in Chile were affected, said President Michelle Bachelet, who added that it would take officials several days to evaluate the "enormous quantity of damage."

In Concepcion, a city of 670,000 people 70 miles (115 km) southwest of the quake's epicenter, thousands of people spent the night in tents or makeshift shelters made from bed-sheets and cardboard boxes.

About 100 people were feared trapped in a collapsed apartment block and firefighters used drills and shovels to search for signs of life in the rubble.

"We spent the whole night working, smashing through walls to find survivors. The biggest problem is fuel, we need fuel for our machinery and water for our people," Commander Marcelo Plaza said.

Rebuilding Challenge

The government faces the task of helping rebuild an estimated half a million homes that were severely damaged as well as hundreds of buckled roads and collapsed bridges.

The quake has raised a daunting first challenge for billionaire Sebastian Pinera, who was elected Chile's president in January in a shift to the political right and who takes office in two weeks.

"We're preparing ourselves for an additional task, a task that wasn't part of our governing plan: assuming responsibility for rebuilding our country," Pinera said late on February 27.

"It's going to be a very big task and we're going to need resources."

Some economists predicted a deep impact on Chile's economy after the quake damaged its industrial and agricultural sectors in the worst-hit regions, possibly putting pressure on its currency.

Government officials said the copper industry had enough stocks to meet its commitments despite a production shutdown at two major mines due to the quake. Diesel imports were stepped up after damage forced the closure of two oil refineries.

The quake on February 27 triggered tsunami waves that killed at least four people on Chile's Juan Fernandez islands and caused serious damage to the port town of Talcahuano, flooding streets and lifting fishing boats out of the sea.

On the other side of the Pacific, Japan's northeastern coast registered waves of up to 4 feet (1.2 meters), but officials later lowered the state of alert.

Hundreds of thousands of people in Japan, New Zealand, the Philippines and Russia's far eastern Kamchatka Peninsula were told to evacuate after the Chilean quake, but there were no immediate reports of damage.

Another strong aftershock rattled buildings in the capital, Santiago, early on February 28.

In Concepcion, the streets were strewn with crushed cars, fallen power lines and rubble from wrecked buildings. Residents were still without water or electricity and fuel supplies were running low.

Police stepped up patrols to deter looters, who tried to raid a supermarket.

"People have gone days without eating," Orlando Salazar said. "The only option is to come here and get stuff for ourselves."