Nightly News   |  February 28, 2010

Chile struggles to cope with devastation

Slammed by the earthquake, then leveled by the tsunami waves that followed, many of the nation’s coastal towns are reporting massive damage. NBC’ s George Lewis reports.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>> we're following in south america .

>>> that massive earthquake in chile. the day after the quake officials now put the death toll at 708. and they say it's likely to go higher. a million and a half people have been displaced. many of the dead were in concepcion, chile's second largest city, not far from the epicenter. nbc's george lewis has the latest.

>> reporter: utter devastation on the coast of chile. the fishing port of constitucion slammed by the earthquake, then leveled by the tsunami waves that followed. water inundated neighborhoods a quarter mile inland, tossing boats against buildings. this man said a wave 30 feet high destroyed his house. state-run television said there were 350 dead in this place alone. amateur video captured the moment just after the tsunami waves hit the coastal village of dechato, with more widespread flooding and destruction. elsewhere, in the city of concepcion, police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse crowds of looters in a supermarket. authorities imposed a curfew to curb further violence. this woman said it's out of necessity, "we don't have water or anything to eat. i've got a baby, and i don't have bread or anything."

>> we're seeing that they were needing desperately this food.

>> reporter: chilean president michelle bachelet told the nation, "we face a catastrophe of such unthinkable magnitude that it will require a giant effort for chile to recover." she's now requesting international aid , especially field hospitals , as the country's overburdened medical system tries to cope with the injured. another continuing problem, aftershocks from the 8.8 earthquake making it dangerous for rescue workers looking for people trapped in the rubble.

>> there's a possibility of some very large aftershocks that can do damage. so far we've recorded at least 100 aftershocks of magnitude 5 or larger.

>> reporter: santiago's international airport reopened today to a few incoming flights. the main terminal is heavily damaged, the windows smashed, the ceilings partially collapsed. and passengers are being bused to other buildings to be processed. but the reopening of the airport will pave the way for international relief efforts as chile tries to cope with its worst earthquake in half a century. george lewis , nbc news, los angeles .