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Rattled, but moving forward

The Plaza de Armas in Santiago. The metropolitan area of more than 7 million people suffered fires and blackouts, but most of the quake damage was on the coast closest to the epicenter. The Plaza de Armas in Santiago. The metropolitan area of more than 7 million people suffered fires and blackouts, but most of the quake damage was on the coast closest to the epicenter.
By David Abel
Globe Staff / March 21, 2010

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It ranks among the 10 most powerful earthquakes ever recorded.

Its tremors were so strong that scientists say they shortened the length of the day and moved the Earth’s axis.

To put the 8.8-magnitude earthquake that rocked central Chile last month in perspective, it was 500 times more powerful than the 7.0-magnitude quake that hit Haiti in January.

It triggered tsunami warnings in more than 50 countries and was felt as far away as Buenos Aires and parts of Peru. About 700 people have been reported to have died in Chile as a result of the earthquake, which damaged some 500,000 buildings at a cost that government officials estimate could reach nearly $30 billion.

“Given that the area impacted by the earthquake is where 80 percent of the people of Chile live, we are lucky that more didn’t die,’’ said Andrea Lagos, a spokes woman for the Chilean embassy in Washington, noting that the quake in Haiti reportedly left more than 200,000 dead. “But there is a lot of damage. It’s a national catastrophe.’’

The Feb. 27 earthquake, from which more than 100 aftershocks have been recorded since, struck off the coast of the Maule region, where some 200,000 people live and more than 50 percent of the nation’s wines are produced.

It caused damage more than 400 miles away in the capital, Santiago, where the airport was briefly closed, the presidential palace and the National Museum of Fine Arts suffered damaged, and fires and blackouts swept through the metropolitan area of more than 7 million people.

The majority of the damage was along the coast closest to the epicenter, where tsunamis devastated homes, hospitals, and government buildings from Talca, Maule’s capital, to Concepción, Chile’s second-largest city, with nearly a million people.

While aftershocks continue from north to south, most of the busy tourist areas remain intact and open for business. Newly elected President Sebastián Piñera took over this month vowing to lead a massive rebuilding effort.

Northern Chile and Patagonia were unaffected. Tourist destinations such as Pucón, Puerto Varas, and Puerto Montt are all functioning normally. The Navimag ferry that carries cargo and tourists from northern to southern Patagonia continues on its normal schedule.

However, some roads, bridges, and ports throughout central Chile are in disrepair and gasoline in some areas remains in limited supply.

Santiago International Airport reopened with a limited schedule of domestic and international flights on March 9 and was expected to be fully operational by tomorrow. All other regional airports are open and operating on normal schedules.

On its website, the US Department of State continues to advise Americans “to avoid non-essential travel to those areas closest to the epicenter and most affected by the earthquake, including the cities of Concepción, Talcahuano, and Temuco and the coastal areas in Bio Bio and Maule districts.’’

DAVID ABEL