Santiago: Thousands of people evacuated from Chile's low-lying coastal areas returned home on Wednesday morning after authorities called off a tsunami alarm as damage from a massive overnight earthquake seemed mostly limited.
Earlier, a major earthquake struck off the coast of Chile, triggering a tsunami that hit the northern part of the country, causing landslides that blocked highways and leading to at least five deaths.
Fishermen inspect boats washed onto a dock after a 2-metre tsunami hit the northern port of Iquique, Chile. Photo: Reuters
The earthquake of magnitude 8.2 struck at 8.46pm local time. The government evacuated Chile’s northern coast and a tsunami warning was issued for the Pacific coast of Mexico through Central and South America.
Indonesia warned that it too could be hit by a small tsunami on Thursday morning and told residents to stay away from beaches.
And Japan's meteorological agency said it was assessing whether to issue a tsunami advisory, as authorities braced for waves potentially as high as one metre.
Locals sit on the street following a tsunami alert after a powerful 8.0-magnitude earthquake. Photo: AFP
The Japanese meteorological agency said that tsunami waves could reach coastal zones of the Pacific country early on Thursday, but that it was still assessing the danger.
"There is possibility that tsunami of an advisory level could come, which should be in a range between about 20 centimetres and one metre at the highest," an agency official told reporters.
The Australian Tsunami Warning Centre said there was no threat.
Where the quake hit.
Blackouts, telephone outages and highway damage were reported in northern Chile, the government said late on Tuesday. Officials said the dead included people who were crushed by collapsing walls or were killed by heart attacks.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre said the quake generated a large tsunami with the biggest wave reported at 2.3 metres. The Chilean Navy said the first big wave hit the coast within 45 minutes.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said they were yet to receive any calls for help in the affected regions by Australians.
People start evacuating after a tsunami alert in Lima. Photo: AFP
“Chilean authorities are responding to the earthquake off the coast of Chile," a spokeswoman said. "Australians in the region should follow the advice of local authorities."
The US Geological Survey said the quake was shallow at 20.1 kilometres below the seabed and struck about 100 kilometres north-west of the mining port of Iquique near the Peruvian border. Tremors were felt as far inland as Bolivia, and the quake was followed by a weaker 6.2 magnitude aftershock, Agence France-Presse reported.
Iquique, a major port city of about 182,000 people, is at the edge of Chile's copper mining Atacama desert region. The area has been on high alert in recent weeks after an unusual number of tremors.
Chile hit by tsunami
People flee the "Costa Verde" bay after a tsunami alert in Lima. Photo: AFP
The government said it had no reports of significant damage to coastal areas, but around 300 prisoners took advantage of the confusion and escaped from a jail in Iquique, Interior Minister Rodrigo Penailillo said.
In Peru, the southern coastal area was also put on alert while roads along the coast were closed, said the mayor of the capital, Susana Villaran.
"An earthquake of this size has the potential to generate a destructive tsunami that can strike coastlines near the epicentre within minutes and more distant coastlines within hours," the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre said. "An evaluation of the Pacific wide tsunami threat is under way and there is a possibility that Hawaii could be elevated to a watch or warning status," it added.
Authorities in Peru started evacuating communities in the southern coastal region of Ica. Electricity was partially lost in the Peruvian cities of Tacna, Moquegua and Arequipa but there were no reports of deaths or serious damage.
Chile is one of the most seismically active countries in the world, and a large earthquake has long been expected in the north of the country. In February 2010, central and southern Chile were hit by a powerful earthquake of 8.8-magnitude followed by a tsunami that devastated dozens of towns. The quake left more than 500 dead and caused $US30 billion in damage.
In Indonesia, tsunami waves up to half a metre high "will possibly affect several areas in Indonesia" from early Thursday, disaster agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said.
Mr Nugroho said that the first tsunami waves could arrive at around 5am Thursday in the eastern region of Papua, and that authorities in 19 provinces of Indonesia had been alerted.
"We are urging the provincial and district governments within these areas to take precautions by urging people to stay away from beaches," he said in a statement.
The same coastal area has been the scene of numerous quakes in recent days. On Sunday, a 6.0-magnitude earthquake struck, followed by at least two moderate aftershocks.
Reuters, MCT, AFP