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Concepcion, Chile (CNN) — Rescuers searched for survivors Monday as crews sought to deliver food and water and prevent looting after the fifth strongest earthquake in 100 years ravaged central and southern Chile.

More than 1.5 million people were without power in and around the capital of Santiago, according to Chile’s National Emergency Office, but the hardest-hit areas were farther south, in the Maule and Bio Bio regions along the coast.

Authorities said 541 of the 708 reported deaths happened in Maule, where a sewer system collapsed, water towers were close to toppling and communities lacked basic services, the emergency office said.

Many people were without safe drinking water and electricity or gas service in Bio Bio, where 64 deaths occurred, according to the Chilean government’s latest figures.

Rescuers from Santiago, fresh from a stint in earthquake-ravaged Haiti, worked through the night to free people who could be trapped in a 15-story building in the hard-hit city of Concepcion in central coastal Chile, about 70 miles (115 kilometers) from the earthquake’s epicenter.

Firefighters said they believed they heard tapping from inside the building. Authorities said 40 or 50 people could be inside but do not know whether they are alive or dead.

The rescue and recovery work unfolded as Chile’s defense minister blamed its navy for not issuing a tsunami warning after the 8.8-magnitude earthquake rocked the South American country Saturday.

Such a forewarning could have allowed villagers on the coast to flee to higher ground.

“The truth even if it hurts [is that] a division of the Navy made a mistake,” Defense Minister Francisco Vidal said.

After the quake initially struck, President Michelle Bachelet said a tsunami was unlikely.

Yet a large wave crashed later into the Chilean islands of Juan Fernandez, killing at least eight people and leaving another eight missing, the emergency office said.

Chilean authorities later realized the earthquake generated large waves that slammed coastal areas. “What we saw between the sixth and the ninth region is a tsunami,” Vidal said.

The Navy has an emergency system under which captains in each port may issue warnings when sea levels begin to rise.

Those captains were the ones who eventually sounded the alarm and helped prevent additional loss of lives. “There was a mistake,” Vidal said. “Fortunately, the system was activated.”

Calling the quake an “unthinkable disaster,” Bachelet said a “state of catastrophe” in the worst-hit regions would continue, allowing for the restoration of order and speedy distribution of aid.

See scenes of devastation from the quake

Chile hopes to resume normal commercial air service soon, Bachelet said in remarks on the Chilean government’s Web site. Authorities also are working to prevent the possible spread of disease, she said.

“We’re facing an emergency without parallel in the history of Chile. The passage of time has demonstrated that we’re facing a catastrophe of unforeseen intensity, one that caused damages that are going to require immense, united efforts from all sectors of the country — private and public,” Bachelet said.

The earthquake is tied for the fifth strongest since 1900, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Another 8.8 quake struck off Ecuador in 1906.

Stronger quakes occurred in Russia’s Kamchatka (magnitude 9) in 1952, off northern Sumatra in 2004 (magnitude 9.1), in Alaska in 1964 (magnitude 9.4) and south of Concepcion — not far from the epicenter of Saturday’s quake — in 1960 (magnitude 9.5).

Looting broke out in parts of the country Sunday. Desperate residents scrounged for water and supplies inside empty and damaged supermarkets. Authorities used tear gas and water cannons to disperse looters.

Chilean President-elect Sebastian Piñera, set to be sworn in this month, warned looting could grow worse and called for more government help in restoring order.

“We will experience a very, very difficult situation with public order, particularly in the area of Concepcion,” Piñera told Radio Bio Bio on Sunday night.

In Concepcion, the Bio Bio region’s capital, there were not enough police to control all those seeking food and supplies from stores. Some became desperate as supermarkets closed and gas was unavailable, CNN Chile reported.

Stealing broke out not just at the hands of desperate residents, but by others who were opportunistic, Concepcion Mayor Jacqueline Van Rysselberghe said. “They are robbing everything,” she said, asking for a stronger military response as the police force was inadequate.

Looters targeted appliance and electronics stores in addition to food, gas and emergency supplies, Van Rysselberghe said.

Some small-business owners resorted to protecting shops with rifles and shotguns, she said.

Concepcion, which with its adjacent sister city of Talcahuano, has a population of 840,00, and it was under curfew from 9 p.m. Sunday to 6 a.m. Monday because of the looting.

Hundreds faced sleeping in tents on Sunday night, while the city government distributed water from the central plaza.

“I have nothing,” one woman in Concepcion told CNN Chile. “I have no bread. I am a widow. I am 81 years old.”

Bachelet said her government had reached an agreement with major supermarkets that would allow them to give away basic foods. The armed forces was available to help with security and food distribution, she said.

More than 90 aftershocks have been recorded, ranging from 4.9 to 6.9 in magnitude. The quake struck before dawn Saturday, toppling thousands of houses. The Chilean Red Cross reported that some 500,000 homes sustained considerable damage.

Bachelet has said some 2 million people had been affected in one way or another.

Chile has received offers of international aid, Bachelet said. The U.S. military and the U.S. Agency for International Development were working to provide communications support in the form of satellite phones, the State Department said. The United Nations confirmed Monday that Chile had requested assistance and said it was ready to help.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will travel to Santiago on Tuesday on a previously scheduled trip through Latin America. She originally was set to arrive Monday.

All 300 American and Chilean employees of the U.S. Embassy have been accounted for and are safe, Paul Simons, U.S. ambassador to Chile, told CNN’s “American Morning.”

As of Monday morning, no Americans were reported dead or seriously injuried, Simons said, but efforts to locate and contact thousands of Americans continue, with reports sketchy from the most affected areas.

Why Haiti’s less powerful quake was a bigger killer

Piñera, the president-elect, sought to rally spirits in nationally televised remarks Sunday night, announcing a reconstruction plan called “Up With Chile.”

“We will raise Chile,” he said. “It’s not going to be a short task. It’s not going to be easy. It will require a lot of effort, a lot of resources and a lot of time.”

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