SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Entire families are camping out on high ground in cars and makeshift tents too afraid to return to their coastline villages destroyed by giant waves after a huge earthquake struck central Chile.
Saturday's 8.8-magnitude quake, one of the biggest in recorded history that killed more than 800 people, sparked walls of waves that washed away many of the mud-brick houses along the coast in the southern Nuble province.
Townspeople, many who live on fishing and farming, fled to hills and survived but are now refusing to come down despite days dwelling in the woods with little food or water. They fear more tsunamis will follow the frequent strong aftershocks that have shaken the country in recent days.
Powerful back-to-back aftershocks caused new panic in devastated fishing villages and coastal towns on Wednesday, sending people running for high ground even though there was no tsunami alert.
Catholic Bishop Carlos Pellegrin, who overseas more than 30 parishes in Nuble province, says eight small communities and two small towns have been mostly abandoned. Cut off from the outside world, residents have resorted to killing their livestock to feed their families.
Pellegrin said firemen were filling their trucks with river water and to supply people sleeping up the hills in makeshift shelters made out of sticks and blankets, or in abandoned cars. But parents were worried the untreated water would make their children and babies sick.
"The government has been very late to help these people. They have received nothing so far," Pellegrin said in a phone interview, estimating there could be up to 3,000 people huddling on high ground.
In the village of Quirihue alone 800 homes were decimated, leaving residents with nothing to return to, he said.
The national emergency office, known by its acronym ONEMI, said the government had not yet contacted isolated communities and did not know how many people were living in the mountains.
But Chile's President Michelle Bachelet said she knew about the problem and that many people counted as missing were probably unable to communicate with their relatives after the quake to inform them they were alive.
"There are people who are still in the mountains and so no one knows where they are. There is no way for them to contact their family members to alert them that they are OK," Bachelet told local radio.
Even though experts see the risk of more tsunamis as low, convincing people to return home is proving difficult.
"Several days have passed and what's happening is the people are scared because the aftershocks have continued -- in some cases very strong aftershocks," Bachelet said, adding that the government is making efforts to get emergency shelters into the towns pummeled by the massive waves.
(Additional reporting by Alvaro Tapia, editing by Todd Benson and Anthony Boadle)