Tsunami panic

Thousands flee to higher ground after a massive earthquake hits the region of December's disaster.

By John Aglionby et al.
Published March 29, 2005 2:51PM (EST)

Survivors of the Dec. 26 tsunami fled their homes Monday night after a huge undersea earthquake, measuring up to 8.7 magnitude, struck off the coast of Sumatra, with as many as 2,000 people feared dead on the Indonesian island of Nias, close to its epicenter.

Ninety-three days after giant waves left nearly 300,000 people dead or missing, Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla told a local radio station that between 1,000 and 2,000 people were probably killed on Nias after the earthquake. He said the estimate was based on an assessment of damage to buildings, not bodies counted.

Agus Mendrofa, deputy district head of Nias, off the western coast of Sumatra, earlier told local radio 296 people had died. He added that hundreds of buildings had been damaged or had collapsed.

Sgt. Zulkifli Sirait of the island's police told the Associated Press: "We still cannot count the number of casualties or the number of collapsed buildings because it is dark here. It is possible that hundreds of people trapped in the collapsed buildings died."

The Misna missionary news agency in Rome reported that a huge fire was raging in Gunungsitoli, the island's main town. "From the window I see very high flames," it quoted Father Raymond Laia as saying by telephone. "The town is completely destroyed." The town was likely to be 75 percent damaged, local police said, after the earthquake struck on the same fault line as the Dec. 26 quake, 250 miles southeast of Banda Aceh. Altogether, at least 340 Nias residents died, and 10,000 were left homeless in that earthquake.

With a tsunami warning system for the Indian Ocean still the subject of political debate, governments in Thailand, India and Japan tried to warn residents by radio and television after the earthquake struck 19 miles under the Andaman Sea at 11:09 p.m. local time.

Monday night, the threat of a tsunami appeared to recede, with the Thai, Sri Lankan and Indian governments canceling their tsunami alerts. But in Australia officials warned a tsunami could hit the western coast.

In the Indonesian province of Aceh, tens of thousands of people abandoned tents and temporary homes and ran for high ground in darkness when the earth shook for two minutes, far longer than the much smaller quakes in recent weeks. Electricity and phone lines were down across much of Sumatra, and the earthquake was felt as far away as Bangkok and Singapore, where tall buildings swayed and people in high-rise hotels streamed onto the streets.

Recorded at 8.7 by the U.S. Geological Survey and 8.5 by Japan's Meteorologic Agency, with an epicenter further south than the Dec. 26 earthquake, seismologists warned the latest earthquake had the potential to create another destructive tsunami at the end of a week of at least seven smaller aftershocks in the region.

Residents in the Sumatran city of Medan said they think the tremors were stronger than those on Dec. 26.

In Thailand, cracks in buildings appeared, apparently caused by the quake, and people were evacuated from hotels and hospitals in Phuket, Phang-nga and Krabi. Warnings were issued over the radio by officials charged with setting up a tsunami warning system in the country. "About 3,000 to 4,000 tourists and locals have been evacuated from Patong and Kamala beaches to higher places," Wichai Buapradit, deputy governor of Phuket, told Reuters. "We've told them to take their valuable belongings and to go to higher places."

Sirens sounded in Sri Lanka as towns on the east coast began frantically evacuating residents. Local media reported people had fled inland well in advance of any official government warnings. Scientists last week predicted a magnitude 7.5 earthquake was possible in the region after the seismic slip on Dec. 26 had piled dangerous levels of stress onto two vulnerable parts of the fault zone off the coast of Sumatra.

"There's been seismic activity throughout this zone that has been ongoing for the last three months," Dale Grant of the U.S. Geological Survey told the BBC. "This is an aftershock of the great quake, which is something we see as the earth tries to settle itself." But Grant said he would not expect potential tsunami wave heights to be "anywhere near as large" as those that pounded coastlines on Dec. 26 because the quake was less strong. That disaster measured 9 magnitude and left 1.5 million homeless across 11 countries. The British Geological Survey said Monday's earthquake "occurred close to the epicenter of the [Dec. 26] quake."

"It could be described as the largest aftershock of this event," said senior seismologist David Booth. He said there was a high probability of a tsunami occurring "but because the earthquake is of such a shallow depth and is offshore, it would be on a much smaller scale than the [earlier] disaster."

India said it had issued a tsunami warning as a precaution and put troops on alert along its coastline, but said it had no evidence or reports of any deadly waves. On the Indian-controlled Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which have been rocked by 100 aftershocks since the December tsunami, local authorities issued a tsunami warning asking local people to vacate the coast. Scientists at Hyderabad's National Geophysical Research Institute, interviewed on Indian television, warned that if a tsunami was to be generated there was a three-hour window before the coast would be hit.

On Sunday, a quake measuring 6.4 came 40 minutes after midnight local time in Indonesia's eastern province of Maluku. A second aftershock, measuring 6.0, came seven hours later. On Friday, a 5.9 quake hit near Banda Aceh.

Despite panic and evacuations, there was also complacency on the streets of devastated areas that have become weary of aftershocks. With no sign of a tsunami two hours after the tremors, many Indonesians roused from sleep returned to their beds.

John Aglionby et al.

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