The 8.0 M earthquake occurred at 23:41 GMT on Wednesday August 15 (6:41 PM local time). The epicenter was on the coast 92 miles south of Lima and 68 miles NW of Ica, which sustained the greatest damage. The quake was felt as far away as Arequipa, Peru's 2nd largest city 250 miles to the south and the site of an 8.1 M quake in 2001. Shaking was reported to have lasted 2 minutes.
The death toll is over 500, with reports from some areas still not in. The cities of Ica, with 261,000 people, and Pisco, a city of 116,000, have been hardest hit. Reports talk of massive destruction. 127 bodies were recovered from one church that collapsed during a funeral service. Thousands more have been injured and tens of thousands are homeless. People have been camping out for fear of further building collapses. There have been several strong aftershocks. Three days after the quake, although aid was arriving, many people were desperate for food. There have been reports of looting. Some aid shipments have been stopped and looted by people who apparently couldn't stand to see it go by, while they were in such need. President Alan Garcia sent in the army to restore order. Aid distribution has been slowed by damage to the Pan American highway, the major transportation link in the area.
Winter temperatures in this desert region drop in the night and people camping out have been burning salvaged wood from destroyed buildings for warmth. There is a shortage of blankets and warm clothing.
680 prisoners escaped from a maximum security prison after it was damaged in the quake. Police have been trying to apprehend them, in addition to the pressing needs of maintaining order and aiding the victims. Some of the prisoners reported turned themselves in because conditions were so bad in the area that they apparently decided that prison was preferable.
The earthquake was felt strongly in Peru's capital, Lima. People ran into the streets. The power went off and there were reports of loud noise and lights in the sky at the time of the quake. One person said there was lightning caused by power surges as the grid went down.
A tsunami may have been generated in the immediate area, but widescale tsunami warnings in the Pacific were cancelled after a few hours. There have not been reports of tsunami damage.
Earthquakes over 8.0 Magnitude are classified as Great Earthquakes and are capable of wide scale devastation in a heavily populated area. They occur worldwide once every year or two. However, many occur in lightly populated areas and do not cause a lot of damage. This is the second great earthquake this year, following the April Solomon Islands quake (see below). The 2004 Sumatra earthquake and tsunami, by contrast, at 9.0M released 10 times the energy of this quake.
The USGS tectonic summary for this quake said: "This earthquake occurred at the boundary between the Nazca and South American tectonic plates. The two plates are converging at a rate of 77 mm per year. The earthquake occurred as thrust-faulting on the interface between the two plates, with the South American plate moving up and seaward over the Nazca plate. Coastal Peru has a history of very large earthquakes. The August 15 shock originated just south of the source region of the magnitude 8.1 earthquake of October 1974 and just north of the source regions of major earthquakes that occurred in August 1942 (magnitude 7.7) and 1996 (magnitude 7.7). The largest coastal Peru earthquake of the last two centuries was the magnitude 9 earthquake of 1868, which was centered about 700 km southeast of the August 15 earthquake. The 1868 shock produced a tsunami that killed several thousand people along the South American coast and also caused damage in Hawaii."
See also the following news stories: