Chile sends army to flood-hit region

Residents watch the overflowing of the Copiapo River following heavy rainfall in Chile on March 25, 2015 (AFP Photo/Alex Fuentes)

Copiapó (Chile) (AFP) - Chile rushed in the army and urged people to flee Wednesday after heavy rains flooded towns across the northern region of Atacama, prompting the government to declare a state of emergency.

The torrential storms, which began late Tuesday and are unusual for the normally arid region, have left 600 people homeless, cut off roads, caused power outages and severed communications.

"Anyone in an at-risk zone in the Atacama region should evacuate. What we need is for you to get to safety," warned Interior Minister Rodrigo Penailillo, who plans to travel to the disaster zone.

About 40,000 people were without electricity and as many or more without potable water, officials said.

The rain flooded the main streets in the regional capital Copiapo and in several towns. It also cut off hundreds of residents in remote areas.

The weather forced state copper company Codelco, the world's largest copper producer, to temporarily halt operations in Atacama and the neighboring region of Antofagasta.

"At this time, Codelco's operations are resuming slowly, as we constantly monitor weather conditions to ensure the safety of our people and equipment," said the company, which produces around 11 percent of the world's copper.

Flights were delayed at the Calama and Antofagasta airports, hubs for the area's mining operations.

Authorities declared a health alert for several municipalities.

President Michelle Bachelet expressed her "solidarity with all those affected" and said her government would send all necessary resources to the area.

The floods in the north came as southern Chile battled devastating wildfires exacerbated by a severe drought.