Panic but no injuries as Venezuela hit by 7.3 magnitude earthquake

AFP , Wednesday 22 Aug 2018

Venezuela was rocked by a 7.3-magnitude earthquake near its northeastern coast Tuesday, the US Geological Survey said, causing buildings to sway and people to run into the street in panic but there were no reports of fatalities or injuries.

The tremor was an added headache for a country whose economy is unraveling amid hyperinflation and widespread grassroots anger with the leftist government.

Jose Nevada, 35, from the eastern Delta Amacuro state, said the tremor was very strong there.

"People ran out into the streets, many stayed there and in some places the lights went out," he told AFP by telephone.

The tremor was felt for several seconds some 400 kilometers (250 miles) away in the capital Caracas, notably in tall buildings. Many were evacuated for fears of aftershocks or lasting structural damage.

People gathered in streets, plazas and parks -- any place to get away from buildings -- and hugged each other. They tried desperately to make calls with cell phones but service was disrupted for a while.

Interior Minister Nestor Reverol said the prolonged quake was felt in several states but that "for now, there are no reports of victims."

Some buildings suffered structural damage, he told state TV.

Dorothy Villalobos said she was in a bank when the quake struck. "The windows started to move, and the tables and chairs," she said.

She said bank employees told everyone to get out but some queueing at a cash dispenser -- desperate to withdraw the limited notes they're authorized to claim in the cash-strapped country -- "didn't want to leave."

"The pictures wobbled and the window panes creaked. I went down the stairs and the doors of every apartment on the 10 floors of my building were open," Jose Oviedo, who lives just to the east of Caracas, told AFP.

"We gathered downstairs. I saw a redheaded lady, white from fright, crying."

The USGS said the tremor occurred just after 5:30 pm (2130 GMT), with the epicenter close to the coast of the state of Sucre, at a depth of 123 kilometers.

Venezuela's Seismology Investigations Foundation measured the quake at magnitude 6.3 and said it hit the town of Yaguaraparo in Sucre at a depth of just 100 meters (330 feet). It later revised the magnitude to 6.9.

The quake was also felt in Trinidad and Tobago off the coast of Venezuela, causing some minor damage but no fatalities or injuries, officials there said.

Social media in Venezuela were inundated with messages of alarm, particularly in the greater Caracas area that has a population of around four million.

An emblematic and abandoned skyscraper in Caracas leaned precariously.

Photos shared by local news outlets and on social media showed cracked buildings in Caracas and Puerto Ordaz, in the south.

Oil-rich Venezuela is already struggling with an economic and political crisis following four years of recession that has seen more than two million people flee the country, according to the United Nations.

The country is facing food and medicine shortages, and failing public services such as running water, electricity and transport.

The International Monetary Fund has predicted inflation will hit one million percent this year.

President Nicolas Maduro's government launched a new currency on Monday to try to tackle hyperinflation, lopping five zeros off the old bolivar.

Venezuela also devalued the bolivar by 96 percent and anchored it to its widely discredited cryptocurrency, the petro.

It's all part of a radical new economic plan launched by Maduro that includes a 3,400 percent increase in the minimum wage, loosened foreign exchange rules and reduced fuel subsidies.

The last time the country was hit with a tremor this strong was in 1997, when 73 people were killed in a 7.0-magnitude quake in Sucre.

Thirty years earlier, 200 people died after a 6.7-magnitude tremor rocked Caracas.

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