A violent 8.8-magnitude earthquake struck central Chile early Saturday morning, killing more than 200 people, damaging hundreds of thousands of homes and setting off tsunami warnings across the Pacific Rim.

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet declared "a state of catastrophe" in the country's central regions.

At least 214 people have been confirmed dead and another 15 were missing, while 1.5 million people had been affected by the quake, Bachelet said at a news conference.

Carmen Fernandez, head of the National Emergency Agency, said later that the unofficial death toll had likely topped 300.

"We believe this will continue to grow," Fernandez said.

The country's news stations broadcast images of demolished buildings, and damaged cars lining streets choked with rubble.

Chilean officials said 500,000 homes were severely damaged.

The 90-second quake hit at 3:34 a.m. local time. It was the strongest temblor to hit Chile in 50 years and is tied for the seventh-strongest on record worldwide.

Buildings shook in neighbouring Argentina, but the quake was felt as far away as Sao Paolo, Brazil -- 2,900 kilometres to the east.

About 13 million people live in the area where shaking was strong to severe, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Geophysicist Randy Baldwin of the U.S. Geological Survey told CTV News Channel that the quake's magnitude means it was likely about 1,000 times more powerful than the recent earthquake that devastated Haiti.

"This is a significantly larger quake than Haiti. It will have to be seen what kind of impact it will ultimately have in terms of damage and casualties, because the population centres aren't located quite as close to the epicentre as was Port-au-Prince to the Haitian quake," he said.

  • Family and friends of Canadians in Chile who are seeking information on their loved ones can call Ottawa's emergency operations centre at 1-800-387-3124 or 613-943-1055.

Despite the severity of the quake, Bachelet urged Chileans not to panic.

"People should remain calm," she said. "We're doing everything we can with all the forces we have. Any information will be shared immediately."

Bachelet had no word of the number of people injured, she said, and Chile has not asked for emergency assistance from other countries.

U.S. President Barack Obama said Saturday that Washington "will be there" if Chile requests assistance in rescue and recovery efforts.

"The United States stands ready to assist in the rescue and recovery efforts and we have resources that are positioned to deploy should the Chilean government ask for our help," Obama said.

Surveying the damage

There have been more than 50 aftershocks with a magnitude of 5 or greater, including one of magnitude 6.9.

The airport in the capital of Santiago has been shut down. It will remain closed into Sunday, airport director Eduardo del Canto said. He told Chilean television in a telephone interview that the passenger terminal sustained major damage.

Newer buildings in Santiago have been built to withstand earthquakes, but older buildings collapsed. One church, the Nuestra Senora de la Providencia, lost its bell tower. The two-level parking garage of an apartment building collapsed, flattening about 50 cars.

More than 200 inmates escaped from a prison near the epicentre in the city of Chillan, after a fire broke out, Chilean state television reported.

Traffic lights are down and Bachelet warned people to avoid travelling, to prevent further casualties.

Marco Vidal, a program director for Grand Circle Travel who is travelling in Chile with a group of 34 Americans, was on the 19th floor of a hotel in Santiago when the quake hit.

"All the things started to fall. The lamps, everything was going on the floor. And it was moving from south to north, oscillated," he told The Associated Press. "I felt terrified."

The epicentre was 35 kilometres beneath the surface, the U.S. Geological Survey reported, and was located:

  • 100 km north-northwest of Chillan, Chile
  • 105 km west-southwest of Talca, Chile
  • 115 km north-northeast of Concepcion, Chile
  • 325 km southwest of Santiago, Chile

In Concepcion, Chile's second-largest city, nurses could be seen carrying some of the injured through the streets on stretchers.

Several hospitals have been evacuated because of damage from the earthquake, Bachelet said, and communication lines with Concepcion remained down.

Emergency response teams have already been dispatched to the three worst-hit regions of the country, she said.

The earthquake was also felt in neighbouring Argentina, across a mountain range.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center put the entire Pacific Region on alert on Saturday, except for the west coast of North America. The warning extended as far as Australia, Russia, Japan and the Philippines.

A huge wave struck a populated area of the Robinson Crusoe Islands, an archipelago 660 kilometres off the Chilean coast, Bachelet said.

At least five people were killed on the island and 11 more were missing there, said Guillermo de la Masa, head of the government emergency bureau for the Valparaiso region.

Since 1973, there have been 13 earthquakes of a 7.0 magnitude or greater in Chile.

A 9.5-magnitude quake -- the strongest ever recorded -- struck the country's southern coast in 1960. It killed 1,655 people and left another 2 million homeless. The ensuing tsunami killed people in Hawaii, Japan and the Philippines and caused damage to the west coast of the United States.

With files from The Associated Press