Magnitude 7.0 offshore quake rattles Central America; Nicaragua declares state of emergency
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A magnitude 7.0 earthquake hit off the Pacific coasts of Nicaragua and El Salvador on Thursday, promoting tsunami alerts in both Central American nations.
The U.S. Geological Survey said the epicenter was about 95 miles (153 kilometers) south-southwest of the port of El Triunfo, El Salvador. The quake was felt in various points of Central America including Guatemala, Nicaragua and Costa Rica.
There are no immediate reports of damages or injuries from the quake. Lina Pohl, El Salvador’s environment minister, said there was a tsunami alert. She said that waves 6 feet (3 meters) high might hit the coast.
Officials in Nicaragua also issued a tsunami alert.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center said the unusually strong late-season hurricane hit land just north of the Costa Rican border near the town of San Juan de Nicaragua. The center called Otto dangerous in part because of the heavy rains and storm surge it carries.
Heavy rains from the storm have already been blamed for three deaths in Panama.
The center said Otto will continue to move across southern Nicaragua and northern Costa Rica and is expected to weaken to a tropical storm by Thursday night.
Nicaragua closed schools and was evacuating more than 10,000 people from communities in the storm's path. Heavy rains were expected to affect the entire country, raising the possibility of flooding and landslides.
Officials in Costa Rica ordered the evacuation of 4,000 people from its Caribbean coast and called off school nationwide for the rest of the week. Heavy rain was already causing flooding in some areas and the president announced that public employees would not have to work Thursday or Friday.
By Thursday morning, 16 government shelters in Costa Rica held about 1,335 evacuees. People often take shelter with relatives during such evacuations.
The storm caused heavy rains in Panama as it moved roughly parallel to that nation's northern coast, killing three people there.
Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solis said Otto could damage the country's important coffee and agriculture sectors.
Nicaragua also feared damage for impoverished farmers and to coffee crops that are almost ready for harvest.
Otto "could seriously jeopardize food security for small-holder farmers who rely on maize, beans, cocoa, honey, coffee and livestock for their livelihoods," said Jennifer Zapata, a regional director for Heifer International, a U.S.-based anti-poverty group.
Otto was moving west near 9 mph (15 kph) and the hurricane center said it could re-emerge over the Pacific as a tropical storm.
The 7.2 magnitude quake struck at a depth of 33 kilometers, some 154 kilometers (96 miles) south-southwest of Puerto Triunfo in El Salvador, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. CONTINUE
Otto weakens after hurricane, quake hit Central America
Otto was downgraded to a tropical storm but not before striking Central America at hurricane force, as an offshore earthquake also shook the region.
The storm, packing sustained winds of up to 170 kilometers (110 miles) per hour at the time, triggered alarm in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Costa Rica but there were no immediate reports of any casualties.
Nicaragua was caught in the middle of both events, as the hurricane plowed into its Caribbean coast while the 7.0 quake occurred in the Pacific Ocean, off its other coast.
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega declared a national emergency to handle both potential disasters.
But hours later, there were no reports of any widespread destruction, only of fallen trees and electrical cables, and a few collapsed roofs from the storm.
El Salvador ordered residents along its Pacific shore to move inland. But it and Nicaragua soon lifted tsunami alerts they had issued as a precaution.
By nightfall, Otto had weakened to a tropical storm over northwest Costa Rica, and the National Hurricane Center said in its latest update that "the center should emerge into the eastern Pacific in the next few hours."
The Miami-based NHC said Otto's maximum sustained winds had slowed to 70 miles (110 kilometers) per hour.
In Panama, eight people lost their lives during the storm in recent days, three of them directly linked, Jose Donderis, director of the national civil protection service, said Thursday at a news conference.
The other five people died through acts of negligence or risky behavior, such as not following authorities' warnings, he said.
Otto's projected path was through sparsely inhabited rural areas in southern Nicaragua and northern Costa Rica.
Satellite images showed Bluefields, Nicaragua's main Caribbean city, bearing the brunt of the hurricane, but there was almost no wind or rain.
An AFP journalist there said there was even some sunshine.
"We haven't lost any lives. Things are going well. We think that tonight (Thursday), people should be able to start going back to their homes," said a government representative in Bluefields, Lumberto Campbell.
- High vigilance -
In San Juan de Nicaragua further south, the town closest to where Otto made landfall, there were reports of strong wind and rain, with fallen trees and electrical cables, and roofs torn off -- but no deaths or injuries.
Neighboring Costa Rica, which had been fearing its first direct hit from a hurricane since records began in 1851, also showed little damage.
The government had declared a national emergency, closed schools, sent non-essential workers home for Thursday and Friday, and evacuated around 4,000 people from its Caribbean coast.
Vigilance remained high in Nicaragua and Costa Rica, however, given the risk of mudslides in coming days from the storm's rains.
In El Salvador, following the quake, officials scrambled to evaluate the possible damage. The task was made more difficult because some telephone lines in the capital San Salvador had been cut.