It took just eight minutes for the authorities in Chile to issue a nationwide tsunami alert after an 8.2-magnitude earthquake struck off the country’s northern coast on Tuesday, local media reported.
The lightning response allowed residents living in northern coastal areas enough time to evacuate their homes and seek higher ground. As a result, the death toll – six people killed, according to Chilean authorities – was mercifully low, given the magnitude of the quake.
Experts say the tsunami warning needs to be raised within 10 minutes of the quake striking to give coastal communities enough time to seek safer, higher areas.
People living in the affected areas received the tsunami warning via text message on their mobile phones as tsunami warning sirens blared along the country’s long coastline. Hundreds of thousands heeded the evacuation warning.
“Everything has worked out as it should have. Shoa (Chile's oceanographic service) issued the tsunami alert more quickly than we sent out ours,” Victor Saldana, spokesman at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre from Hawaii, was quoted as saying in Chile’s regional newspaper Iquique Star.
Chilean President Michelle Bachelet told local reporters on Tuesday that “the country has faced these first emergency hours very well.”
But that’s not how Chile handled its last deadly 8.8-magnitude quake in 2010, and the tsunami it triggered, in which more than 500 people died.
Following the Feb. 27, 2010 earthquake, the Chilean authorities were widely criticised by the local media over their slow, confused handling of the disaster and failure to issue a timely nationwide tsunami warning immediately after the quake.
A lack of communication, coordination and contradictory orders between Chile's navy, the country’s national emergency agency (ONEMI), Chile’s oceanographic service (SHOA) and the president meant a tsunami alert was issued 21 minutes after the quake struck. Some coastal communities said they never received any tsunami warnings in the first place.
Since that disaster four years ago, the Chilean authorities have clearly improved their response and monitoring system and communication between the key government agencies responsible for issuing tsunami warnings, experts say.
It also helps that most Chileans know what to do when an earthquake strikes.
The quake-prone nation is used to earthquake survival protocols, from tremor-proof building regulations, to schools teaching pupils about what to do during an earthquake. One rule they are taught is not to return home after a first tsunami wave hits but to wait until a tsunami alert has been cancelled.
Since the 2010 earthquake, the Chilean government has repeatedly held tsunami practice drills and public awareness-raising campaigns have been carried out by its national emergency agency across the country.
It seems to have paid off. Chilean TV broadcast on Tuesday footage of traffic jams and crowded streets as people in a relatively ordered and calm way headed for safer areas and away from the coast, carrying with them blankets and food.
"People who have experienced past earthquakes ... have reported feeling more prepared and have shown actions where they are more prepared," Leticia Escamilla, coordinator with the Chilean Red Cross, told ABC news.
"This is a very seismic country, so people are always kind of alert. People do seem more prepared and knew what to do this time around."
The Chilean government has since lifted the nationwide tsunami alert and people living in coastal communities have begun trickling back home.