CONCEPCION, Chile – Security forces said Monday they arrested dozens of people for violating curfew after looters sacked virtually every market in this hard-hit city and Chile's earthquake toll surpassed 700. President Michelle Bachelet promised imminent deliveries of food, water and shelter for thousands living on the streets.
"We are confronting an emergency without parallel in Chile's history," Bachelet declared Sunday, a day after the magnitude-8.8 quake — one of the biggest in centuries — killed at least 708 people and destroyed or badly damaged 500,000 homes. Bachelet said "a growing number" of people were recorded as missing.
The governor of the Concepcion region, Jaime Toha, said troops and police arrested 55 people overnight for violating a curfew imposed to halt looting.
Some coastal towns just to the north of Concepcion were almost obliterated, first shaken by the quake, then slammed by a tsunami that lifted whole houses and carried them inland and that reduced others to piles of sticks.
In Concepcion itself, firefighters were seeking survivors in a toppled apartment building, a day after they had to pause because of tear gas fired at looters who wheeled away everything from microwave ovens to canned milk at a damaged supermarket across the street.
Ingenious looters used long tubes of bamboo and plastic to siphon gasoline from underground tanks at a closed gasoline station.
Eduardo Aundez, a Spanish professor, watched with disgust as a soldier patiently waited for looters to rummage through a downtown store, then lobbed two tear gas canisters into the rubble to get them out.
"I feel abandoned" by authorities, he said. "We believe the government didn't take the necessary measures in time, and now supplies of food and water are going to be much more complicated."
Looters even carted off pieces of a copper statue of South American independence fighter Bernardo O'Higgins next to a justice building.
Efforts to determine the full scope of destruction were undermined by an endless string of terrifying aftershocks that turned more buildings into rubble — and forced thousands to set up tents in parks and grassy highway medians.
"If you're inside your house, the furniture moves," said Monica Aviles, pulling a shawl around her shoulders to ward off the cold as she sat next to a fire across the street from her apartment building.
As if to punctuate her fear, an aftershock set off shuddering and groaning sounds for blocks around.
"That's why we're here," she said.
In another part of the city, eight Peruvian families shared a four-story building — the bravest living inside the cracked building, the others in tents out front.
"We've received help from the neighbors, from passing taxis and from other people who have offered us a coat or something to eat," said Samantha Fernandez, who offered space to boyfriend Jose Luis Jacinto after he fled his room during after the quake.
Bachelet signed a decree giving the military control over security in the provinces of Concepcion and Maule and announced a 9 p.m.-6 a.m. curfew for all non-emergency workers.
She ordered troops to help deliver food, water and blankets and clear rubble from roads, and she urged power companies to restore service first to hospitals, health clinics and shelters. Field hospitals were planned for hard-hit Concepcion, Talca and Curico.
Bachelet also ordered authorities to quickly identify the dead and return them to their families to ensure "the dignified burials that they deserve."
Bachelet, who leaves office March 11, said Chile needs field hospitals and temporary bridges, water purification plants and damage assessment experts — as well as rescuers to help relieve exhausted workers.
Defense Minister Francisco Vidal acknowledged the navy made a mistake by not immediately activating a tsunami warning after the quake hit before dawn Saturday. Port captains in several coastal towns did, saving what Vidal called hundreds of lives. Thirty minutes passed between the quake and a wave that inundated coastal towns.
The quake damaged houses, bridges and highways in Santiago, the capital, though a few flights managed to land at the airport and subway service resumed. Concepcion's airport remained closed to commercial traffic.
Rescuers searched for an estimated 60 people trapped inside a new, 15-story apartment building that toppled onto its side in Concepcion. Firefighters were lowering a rescuer deep into the rubble when tear gas fired at looters across the street forced them to pause their efforts.
Police officer Jorge Guerra took names of the missing from tearful relatives and friends.
"There are people alive. There are several people who are going to be rescued," he said — though the next people pulled from the wreckage were dead.
The sound of chain saws, power drills and sledgehammers mixed with the whoosh of a water cannon fired at looters and the shouts of crowds that found new ways into a four-story supermarket each time police retreated. Some looters threw rocks at armored police vehicles outside the Lider market, which is majority-owned by Wal-Mart Stores Inc. Across the Bio Bio River in the city of San Pedro, looters cleared out a shopping mall. A video store was set ablaze, two automatic teller machines were broken open, a bank was robbed and a supermarket emptied, its floor littered with mashed plums, scattered dog food and smashed liquor bottles.
"They looted everything," said police Sgt. Rene Gutierrez, 46. "Now we're only here to protect the building — what's left of the building."
The quake generated waves that lashed coastal settlements, leaving behind sticks, scraps of metal and masonry houses ripped in two. A beachside carnival in the village of Lloca was swamped in the tsunami. A carousel was twisted on its side and a Ferris wheel rose above the muddy wreckage. Adobe buildings in Talca's town center were flattened.
State television showed scenes of devastation in coastal towns and on Robinson Crusoe Island, where it said the tsunami drove almost 2 miles (3 kilometers) into the town of San Juan Bautista. Officials said at least five people were killed there and more were missing.
Bus terminals overflowed with vacationers in Chile's provinces trying to check on their homes. Chile's summer vacation period ends Monday.
In Washington, the State Department urged Americans to avoid tourist and other nonessential travel to Chile. U.S. citizens in Chile were asked to contact family and friends in the United States, whether by telephone, Internet or cell-phone text messaging.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton planned to briefly visit Santiago on Tuesday as part of a five-nation Latin America trip.
Associated Press writers Carlos Cisternas and Eduardo Gallardo in Santiago contributed to this report.
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