As evening approached in the Peruvian capital of Lima on Wednesday, Carlos Lagos suddenly thought he was witnessing the end. At 6:40 pm (7:40 EDT) his apartment building began to sway and glass panes started popping out of windows, crashing down to the sidewalks below. The facades of elegant colonial mansions began shedding their plaster adornments.
"People were hysterical," says Lagos, 37, who runs a gym. "I grabbed my son in one hand and shoes in the other and left the apartment. Outside, people were screaming. One woman was yelling for all of us to kneel with her and pray to God."
Lima's 8 million residents must have felt divine providence was at play, because the massive, 7.9-magnitude earthquake that shook Peru for more than two minutes caused the capital only cosmetic damage and one fatality. But closer to the quake's epicenter, some 85 miles southeast of Lima, the scene was far more hellish. Pisco, a city of 116,000 in Ica province, suffered the worst damage and most of the 450 deaths and more than 1,000 injuries that Peru's Civil Defense Institute have so far reported. "We are coordinating an air bridge to bring the largest number of injured people to Lima and to avoid overrunning the hospitals in Ica," said President Alan Garcia in an address to the nation before traveling with cabinet ministers to the epicenter zone early Thursday to initiate relief efforts. He declared a 60-day state of emergency in Ica and the southern province of Canete.
While the number of dead is high, authorities recognize that the damage from this and other recent earthquakes could have been much greater if the seismic movement had been centered closer to major urban areas. During his address, President Garcia thanked "Almighty God" for sparing Peru the tragedy caused by earlier earthquakes, such as the one in May 1970 in the central Andes that killed around 70,000 people. Similar earthquakes elsewhere, such as the one that hit Pakistan and India nearly two years ago, killed 73,000 people and left more than 100,000 injured.
In any case, the needs in Peru are dire and immediate. Production Minister Rafael Rey said the most immediate needs are food and water, since Pisco's water system had collapsed. The civil defense institute has begun flying in supplies, including tents for the swelling numbers of homeless. "The President has pledged all the resources required to attend to the needs of the victims and repair damage to infrastructure," Rey said in a telephone interview.
Pisco Mayor Juan Mendoza told the state news agency, Andina, that approximately 20% of the city's buildings were damaged. But Sergio Alvarez, emergency response coordinator for Oxfam International, said up to 60% of Pisco's homes sustained serious damage. "Many of the houses are made of adobe bricks and are fragile," Alvarez said over the phone from Pisco. "We are only conducting a rapid inventory now, but things do not look good. We need to start finding emergency shelters that not only provide a place to rest, but where people can cook and begin to organize their lives."
Fear remained palpable in Lima and towns closer to the epicenter more than 12 hours after the earthquake hit. There have been more than 150 aftershocks, some measuring close to a magnitude 6 on the Richter scale. "I have not been able to reach my sister, who lives in a dangerous area," said Esther Tapia, a Lima homemaker who was heading to a shantytown on Lima's outskirts to check on relatives. "What would happen if these [earthquakes] continue?"
Tapia, like many Peruvians here and abroad, was unable to reach her family by phone, due to the collapse of the country's telephone system. Service was still iffy at mid-day Thursday. Garcia singled out Peru's telecom companies during his radio address, complaining that since the country is located in an earthquake belt, they have less excuse for not keeping their systems prepared for temblors. He ordered Transportation and Communication Minister Veronica Zavala to hold emergency meetings with the firms to resolve the problem.
The quake also destroyed some stretches of the Pan-American Highway, which runs along the Pacific coast and is Peru's principal highway as well as the link between Lima and Ica. Other major roadways, like the Central Highway, which connects the capital to the country's breadbasket in the central highlands, were also damaged.
Besides helping with the relief efforts, the Interior Ministry dispatched police officers to Ica to stop thieves from looting damaged homes and stores. Some 600 inmates at the Tambo de Mora prison in Ica's Chincha province escaped when the earthquake tumbled the penitentiary walls. The National Police announced that officers had only arrested 29 of the escaped convicts by mid-day Thursday. A second prison in Ica was also seriously compromised by the earthquake, but none of the prisoners managed to escape.
Peru is located in a geologically unstable zone, noted for earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. This temblor was caused by the Nazca Plate, located under the Pacific Ocean, sliding under the continental South American Plate. A similar earthquake, with a 7.5-magnitude, struck the same area in 1996.