CARACAS: Venezuela was rocked by a 7.3-magnitude earthquake near its northeastern coast, the US Geological Survey said on Tuesday, causing panic although there were no immediate reports of injuries or damage.
Edwin Rojas, the governor of the nearest state to the earthquake, told government television “the situation is calm,” adding that “it’s been many years since we’ve felt a quake of this level.”
Rojas denounced social media reports of a tsunami as “psycho-terror” that “seeks to fish in troubled waters and alarm the population.”
“There is no tsunami threat from this earthquake,” the US Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said.
Rojas added that hospitals had given no reports of injuries.
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 of which were evacuated for fears of aftershocks or lasting structural damage.
Venezuela’s interior minister Nestor Reverol said the prolonged quake “was felt in several states” but that “for now, there are no reports of victims.”
He added that potential damage was still being assessed.
“The whole building was shaking, the whole building moved. Many people went down in their pyjamas,” 30-year-old Eduardo Zambrano, who lives on the 11th floor of a building in Caracas, told AFP.
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.”
Phone lines collapsed for several minutes under the weight of cellphone calls made in the quake’s aftermath.
People took whatever they could form their buildings while others hugged each other and cried.
The USGS said the tremor occurred just after 5:30pm, 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).
Social media was inundated with messages of alarm, particularly in the greater Caracas area that has a population of around four million.
Reverol called for “calm,” saying the country’s “risk evacuation team” had been “activated.”
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 per cent 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 per cent 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 per cent 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.