A massive earthquake struck southern Peru about 180 km (110 miles) southeast of the capital, Lima, in the early evening on August 15, decimating several towns near the Pacific coast. The quake, which registered 8.0 on the Richter scale, killed 513 people, injured 1,100, and left as many as 100,000 homeless. Hardest hit were Pisco, Ica and Chincha, the largest towns immediately south of Lima.
The death toll is expected to continue to rise as rubble is cleared. Some rescue workers on the ground fear that the final number may exceed 1,000.
Pisco and Ica are well known to many visitors to Peru for their proximity to the famously enigmatic Nasca Lines as well as the Paracas National Reserve, a marine conservation center, and the Ballestas Islands, often referred to as the "Peruvian Galápagos." The earthquake destroyed the famous Cathedral rock formation near Paracas Bay and severely damaged invaluable pre-Hispanic artifacts, including mummies and ceramics, in museums in Ica and Pisco. The region, where the South American plate collides with the Nazca plate, is one of the most seismically active regions of the world.
More than 37,000 homes were destroyed, half of them in Pisco (population 130,000). Officials estimate that 85 percent of central Pisco, where most homes in the region were constructed of adobe and incapable of withstanding the tremors, was destroyed. "All the adobe buildings in Pisco have collapsed. The modern buildings are fine," reported the chief humanitarian officer of Oxfam in Peru, Sergio Álvarez. Still, the five-story Hotel Embassy in Pisco collapsed, killing at least 15 guests and employees.
According to some locals, Pisco looks as though it had suffered days of large-scale bombing. From the ruins of the city's San Clemente Roman Catholic Church, rescuers unearthed 133 bodies, worshippers who had been attending Mass on a national Catholic religious holiday. In Ica, the Señor de Luren church was also leveled.
In Lima, buildings shook for a solid two minutes, sending many residents and visitors fleeing into the streets. Nineteen people were killed in Lima province, including five in the capital.
In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, hospitals and morgues were overwhelmed, and bodies of the dead, many already in caskets, were strewn across the Plazas de Armas in both Pisco and Ica. Communications were cut off, and in desperate conditions, some survivors turned to looting of pharmacies, stores and homes and armed fighting over scarce emergency food supplies. Although the government claims that air flights delivered more than 600 tons of food and water, four days after the earthquake many of those in need, which may total a population of more than 80,000, had received little aid. The Peruvian military sent 1,000 soldiers to patrol the Ica, Chincha and Pisco provinces.
Relief efforts were complicated by the fact that the San Clemente bridge, along the Pan American Highway that links Lima and Pisco, was destroyed, making road travel impossible.
President Alan García declared a state of emergency in the region and called for three days of national mourning. Aid poured in from the United States, Canada, Latin America, Europe and Asia.
The epicenter of the earthquake was just off the coast in the Pacific Ocean, about 25 miles below the earth's surface. Fears of a major tsunami that would have affected many populated areas along the Peruvian coast and potentially reached as far as Ecuador, Chile and even Hawaii, were not realized. Aftershocks in the days after the major earthquake registered as high as 5.9.
The earthquake was the deadliest in Peru in nearly four decades. In 1970, an earthquake triggered a landslide in the northern Peruvian Andes, burying the town of Yungay and killing 66,000 people. A 2001 earthquake that registered 8.1 on the Richter scale struck the lively city of Arequipa, popular with tourists, in southern Peru.
President García, who arrived in Pisco the day after the earthquake to oversee aid efforts, has pledged to rebuild the city. Electricity may not fully return to Pisco for three weeks, and reconstruction is expected to last months.
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