BANDA ACEH (Indonesia): A huge earthBuildings damaged by an earthquake in the capital city of Nias island, Gunungsitoli, in North Sumatra. quake killed at least 400 people, and possibly several thousand more, in northwest Indonesia and triggered Tsunami warnings which caused panic across the Indian Ocean.
The epicenter of the quake measuring 8.7 on the Richter scale was just 200 miles (320 kilometres) south of the December-26 temblor which sent giant waves crashing into 12 nations and killed almost 300,000 people.
The authorities said at least 400 people had been confirmed dead, but Vice President Yusuf Kalla said that reports from the island of Nias off Sumatra indicated 1,000 to 2,000 people had been killed.
The Undersea Jolt
The undersea quake struck about 200 kilometers (120 miles) off the west coast of Sumatra and prompted Indonesia, India, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Thailand, among others, to issue warnings of imminent tsunamis.
Alerts rang out on television and radio, while police and local residents tried to shepherd people to safety away from the coast towards high ground.
But the giant Tsunamis never materialised and three hours after the quake Indonesia and Thailand gave the all clear. Sri Lanka and India followed several hours later.
“There have been Tsunamis recorded as a result of the quake, but apparently they were not destructive,” said Dr. Laura Kong, director of the Hawaii-based International Tsunami Information Center.
New horror of Tsunami
But while the region was largely spared a new Tsunami horror, the earthquake caused massive destruction on Nias, an island of 700,000 people which is popular with surfers.
Agus Mendrofa, a district official, said at least 80 percent of all multi-storey buildings in the main Nias city of Gunung Sitoli had been destroyed, leaving many people feared trapped under rubble.
He said many victims had not received medical treatment as the main hospital had been hit by a blackout and many doctors had fled to nearby hills.
“Power poles fell and roads were broken. Electricity and fixed telephone lines are dead. Thousands of people have fled to the hills,” Herman Laia, an environment official in the south of Nias, told Elshinta radio.
A woman who identified herself as Ping Ping said no buildings were left intact in Teluk Dalam, the main town in southern Nias. “All buildings collapsed, there is nothing left,” she said.
The First Aid
Mar’ie, chairman of the Indonesian Red Cross, said the first aid teams landed on Nias and the nearby island of Simeulue after travelling by light aircraft.
A military official said a three-metre (10-foot) wave had smashed into a port on Simeulue, causing extensive damage. There were unconfirmed reports of casualties.
Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono delayed a planned trip to Australia and was making plans to visit Nias, his spokesman said.
The earthquake brought back memories of the December disaster in which a 9.0-magnitude quake triggered waves 15 metres (50-feet) high that sped across the Indian Ocean at speeds of up to 700 kilometres (430 miles) per hour.
Those waves killed more than 275,000 people including over 220,000 in Indonesia, 30,000 in Sri Lanka, 10,000 in India and 5,000 in Thailand. Over two million people were displaced, and 10 billion dollars of aid was pledged.
Governments also promised to create a high-tech tsunami early warning system for the Indian Ocean by mid-2006.
Although no formal warning system was yet in place, the Japan Meteorological Agency and the International Tsunami Information Center contacted countries around the Indian Ocean immediately after detecting the huge quake.
Makeshift Warning System
Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said the makeshift warning system had worked well.
“Although our warning system is not yet complete, we managed to alert people in enough time for them to seek safety,” he said.
Kerry Sieh, a seismologist with the United States Geological Survey, said Monday’s quake struck at 1609 GMT and was one of the top 10 most powerful earthquakes in the last century.
Tremors shook many parts of Sumatra for three minutes, witnesses said, and rocked the neighbouring countries of Malaysia and Singapore where people fled high-rise buildings.
“When the earthquake happened, I rode my motorcycle to the airport because I was very afraid the tsunami would hit again,” said university student Heri in Banda Aceh, the capital of Indonesia’s Aceh province.
In northwestern Sri Lanka witnesses said people ran to temples and churches where bells were rung to warn people to run to high ground. In the resorts of southwest Thailand holidaymakers fled hotels as television flashed warnings.
Hundreds of people, with children yanked from their beds and still wearing pyjamas, gathered at the town hall on the Thai island of Phuket.
Thai television showed people mounting motorcycles and climbing into pickup trucks as traffic clogged the streets leaving Phuket’s Patong beach.
In India’s Tamil Nadu state radio stations warned people to move away from the ocean.
“People are very tense as they fear that another tsunami is going to hit our coasts. Many of our fishermen have gone to the sea and we are praying for their safe return,” Xavier Lawrence, a priest in the town of Kanyakumari, told AFP.
Jan Egeland, the UN’s emergency relief coordinator, told reporters in New York the organisation would get helicopters in the air early Tuesday over Sumatra to survey the damage.
“We are afraid that many of the structures that were damaged in the first major earthquake … may collapse,” Egeland said.
The quake caused tsunami alerts as far away as the Indian Ocean islands of Mauritius and Madagascar, which is over 4,000 kilometres (2,500 miles) from the epicenter.
Danger of major Tsunami subsides
Meanwhile, a report from Los Angeles quoting US-based monitoring centers says that fears of a major destructive Tsunami hitting Asia following a massive earthquake off the northwest coast of Indonesia Monday have subsided.
The United States Geological Survey (USGS) said the quake was of magnitude 8.7 degrees, up from their initial report of magnitude 8.2. It makes it one of the top ten most powerful earthquakes in the last century.
The subsea epicenter was located some 205 kilometers (125 miles) west of Sibolga on the Indonesian island of Sumatra and 245 kilometers (150 miles) southwest of the Sumatra city of Medan. It struck at 1609 GMT on Monday.
The Hawaii-based US Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, a branch of the US National Weather Service, issued a bulletin more than two hours after the quake struck saying there has been “no major tsunami observed near the epicenter.”
The danger of a “major destructive tsunami should be over now,” said Dr. Laura Kong, director of the International Tsunami Information Center, also based in Hawaii.
“There have been tsunamis recorded as a result of the quake, but apparently they were not destructive.
“Generally, if nothing happens within two to three hours, then the worst of the danger has passed, which appears to be the case now,” she said.
A small tidal wave measuring 23 centimeters (9.2 inches) was recorded in the Cocos islands between Indonesia and Australia, while another measuring 25-30 centimeters (10-12 inches) was recorded off the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, Kong said.
But Kong stressed that areas closer to the quake’s epicenter off Sumatra may have suffered as yet unreported damage.
USGS geophysicist Don Blakeman said warnings were quickly sent to the region. “When we had the size and the location we sent out emails, faxes and phone messages to people telling them exactly where and how large the earthquake is,” he said.
Officials with the National Weather Service and Pacific Tsunami Warning Center contacted authorities in Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar, Bangladesh, India, Singapore, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Mauritius to warn of a possible tsunami soon after the quake hit.
Meanwhile President George W. Bush was being kept updated on the situation, said deputy White House press secretary Dana Perino.
“The President was briefed on the earthquake. We are monitoring the situation,” Perino said.
Bush offers Aid
‘Pakistan Times’ Foreign Correspondent Khalida Mazhar reports from Washington; US President George W. Bush offered his condolences and US aid to Indonesia after an earthquake thought to have killed more than 1,000 people there.
“On behalf of the American people, Laura and I offer our condolences to the victims of yesterday’s earthquake in Indonesia,” the US President said in the White House Rose Garden before making remarks on Iraq.
“The people of Indonesia can know as well that they have our prayers, and that our government is ready to assist,” said Bush, who drew criticism for not speaking out more quickly after the December disaster.
The President said that US officials had offered initial assistance and were determining what additional relief was necessary.