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How families were pulled out to sea to drown

CONSTITUCION, Chile – After the powerful Chilean earthquake and the tsunami that followed, the local surgeon told a horrifying story.  

Along the coastal area, he said, close to the epicenter offshore, most local residents knew that after they suffered through a magnitude 8.8 earthquake, a tsunami with towering waves was likely to hit them next, and soon. Many people ran as fast as they could for safety in the hills outside town. Others tried to drive their vehicles to higher ground.

Some people, though, he said, didn't make it, including families in cars that got stuck in traffic as the first, massive ocean waves approached and then overtook them. 

As the wall of water slammed into the coast, then receded, drivers who were by then underwater could be heard frantically beeping their horns for help, the sound fading and the lights of their cars dimming as they and their families were pulled out to sea to drown. 

The surgeon who told me that story was visibly shaken and said he had never seen anything in his life like the devastation caused by water.

Mark Potter / NBC News
Ruins of a popular seaside restaurant row and nightclub in Constitucion, Chile, destroyed by the earthquake tsunami.

Pummeled by a 50-foot wave

The near-record Chilean earthquake, which struck early Feb. 27, certainly did plenty of damage on its own. Buildings, shops and highway overpasses collapsed, while entire apartment complexes fell in on themselves or tipped over, trapping and killings residents beneath. The Santiago airport terminal had to be closed and miles of homes were reduced to rubble throughout the country.

Despite the destruction from the original earthquake inland, the areas along the Chilean coast are even worse. Towns there were actually pummeled twice – first by the earthquake then by the tsunami – and the damage was so extensive that in many places there is absolutely nothing left now, except debris. 

In Constitucion, a popular visitor's destination was a row of restaurants and a nightclub with a stunning sunset view of the Pacific Ocean. All of that is gone now, having been obliterated by a chain of tsunami waves, the biggest of which was estimated to be at least 50 feet high. 

There is little left now except concrete slabs and huge piles of shattered wood, electrical cables and roofing tiles. Recovery workers were also searching for bodies there.

In downtown Constitucion, boats docked along the waterfront were tossed ashore by the tsunami, one of them landing alongside the city bus and train terminal. 

Mark Potter / NBC News
Remains of a boat tossed ashore by the tsunami in Constitucion, Chile. It landed at the town bus and train station.

Giant trucks were upended and homes were flattened by the water. Stunned residents wandered around trying to collect the few belongings they could save. Caskets from a funeral home were scattered around one of the streets.

In Curanipe, another Chilean coastal town which is the area closest to the epicenter, most of the downtown area was smashed and swept away by the waves. Forty campers who were visiting the area were trapped by the tsunami and are all believed to have perished.

Marco Medel is a student who was visiting his family in Curanipe when the disaster struck.  With the tsunami wave approaching, he said, he ran uphill as fast as he could to stay ahead of the wave, never looking back. "We heard behind us, all the trees falling and a lot of screams, people screaming that they needed help," he said. 

The town was also devastated economically. The entire fishing industry there was destroyed, with boats swamped and processing plants and restaurants ripped apart. Miles of netting were strewn about town while fish, crabs and other produce rotted in the sun. 

Julio Vera, a fisherman who is grateful that he, his wife and son survived, has nothing left to support his family. "I lost all my equipment, my boat, my motor, my nets, everything," he moaned.

And the country is still being rattled – a 7.2 magnitude aftershock, the strongest aftershock since the devastating Feb. 27 quake, rocked Santiago Thursday in the middle of President Sebastian Pinera's inauguration, reviving of tsunami fears.

The television broadcast of the inauguration on TVN Chile ran a tsunami warning for several minutes, warning residents to run to higher ground. And in cities along the coastline residents did exactly that. The warning was eventually recalled and residents were told it was safe to return home. 

Mark Potter / NBC News
Ruins of a seafood processing facility struck by tsunami waves in Curanipe, Chile.

Eerily similar to Hurricane Katrina damage

Walking through the tsunami rubble in Chile was eerily reminiscent of seeing the same storm surge damage along the U.S. Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina made landfall in the summer of 2005. 

During that tragic event, it wasn't the hurricane winds that did the most damage; it was the water. 

The huge waves that broke ashore in Mississippi and the swelling water levels that ripped open the levees in New Orleans were the predominate causes of the catastrophic damage and loss of life in those regions.

The areas in coastal Chile, where homes and business were reduced to nothing but boards and trash, looked almost exactly like the neighborhoods of Waveland and Biloxi, Miss., where water surged ashore and left nothing standing. 

The homelessness and fear lingering in Chile now are just like the suffering felt in the Ninth Ward near New Orleans after the levees broke there and drowned that historic neighborhood and many of its citizens.

A new fear of the water

An irony being talked about in Chile now is that so many fishing towns there built their economies and thrived on what they could take from the sea. But that same sea has now taken so much away that many people, for the first time, are deathly afraid of it. For a generation that has never experience this before, the water revealed its unforgiving power to destroy.

Four days after the earthquake, an unfortunate mix-up illustrated just how scared people are in Chile. Already there had been many aftershocks, some of them major. But, on March 3, a rumor flashed up and down the coast, from neighborhood to neighborhood, that a tsunami warning had just been issued and that another wall of water was headed for shore.

Almost immediately, in many different towns at once, every street headed east away from the coast was filled with terrified residents running, driving or bicycling uphill to safer ground.

 Soldiers deployed to the area to keep order frantically directed traffic away from the low-lying downtown area.  Young people helped elderly residents climb the steep streets and sidewalks, while children and many adults cried in fear, as the word "tsunami" was heard over and over again in the crowds.

The tsunami rumor turned out to be false, but the fear it sparked did not subside quickly or completely. 

Many residents whose homes still stand near the coast refuse to go back to them and are camping in tent cities in the nearby hills. They are concerned about aftershocks toppling the walls of their homes and are even more afraid of the ocean rising up again to wash them away.

Throughout Chile, there is no doubt the earthquake, itself, was destructive and horrible. But anyone living within sight of the ocean knows the water was, and may still be, an even greater threat.