Earthquake In Indonesia

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Damage from the earthquake was severe on the Indonesian island of Nias.

Powerful Quake Jolts the Seabed Off the West Coast of Indonesia

By SOMINI SENGUPTA

NEW DELHI, Tuesday, March 29 – Just three months after a deadly tsunami punched through the Indian Ocean, a powerful underwater earthquake struck again late Monday off the west coast of Indonesia, sending a ripple of panic and public warnings across a still traumatized region.

The quake, which was measured at a magnitude of 8.7, hit shortly after 11 p.m. about 200 miles farther south along the same fault as the more powerful Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunami that killed as many as 270,000 people in 12 Indian Ocean countries, including more than 100,000 in Indonesia.

Early signs seemed to indicate that this time the quake had not inflicted anywhere near the same damage. The one glaring exception was the Indonesian island of Nias, where 1,000 to 2,000 people were feared dead, Indonesia’s vice president, Jusuf Kalla, said in an interview on Al Shinta radio. But reports from remote affected areas were slow in coming, and scientists and other officials were reluctant to dismiss the possibility of wider devastation, including what might come from new tsunamis.

Most clear was that this latest jolt spread fear, that gigantic waves would again inundate many of the same South and Southeast Asian countries still struggling to recover from the disaster of December.

The tremor struck about 125 miles off the Indonesian island of Sumatra, home to Aceh Province, among the hardest hit areas in December. It sent jittery residents fleeing from their homes – relief tents in many cases -into the night and away from the ocean or toward higher ground.

In Banda Aceh, the provincial capital, Diah Zahara, 24, said in a telephone interview that the tremors were so strong that they immediately engendered fears of another tsunami. "Suddenly the road was full of cars," she said. "People were running out onto the street toward safe places."

Ms. Zahara said she and her mother, Ummi, her father, Gazali, and her 21-year-old brother, Mafoud, all ran from their house and then made their way toward an area away from the sea. "We just ran, there was panic, and we just wanted to keep going," she said.

Alessandra Cilas Boas, the communications manager for Oxfam in Banda Aceh, said by telephone that the tremors were so severe that parked cars "were moving backward and forward" on the street.

"It was hard to walk," she said, as she and her colleagues rushed out of their compound. The tremors lasted for about two minutes, she said. The power went out for some time, adding to the anxiety.

In one relief camp in Banda Aceh, an Associated Press photographer reported seeing people fleeing their tents in panic, only to be urged by police to return to their shelters.

Reuters quoted Agus Mendrofa, deputy mayor of Gunungsitoli, the main town on the Indonesian island of Nias, as saying buildings had been flattened and townspeople trapped inside.

"Gunungsitoli is now like a dead town," he told Reuters. "The situation here is in extreme panic."

[In the Sumatran city of Medan, Erni Ginting, a spokeswoman for the disaster center for Aceh and North Sumatra, said Tuesday that the death toll was 322, Reuters reported. She said all the fatalities were on Nias, 220 of them in Gunungsitoli.]

On the Thai resort island of Phuket, Wayne Graham, a Canadian real estate agent who lives 200 yards from the shore, said that as soon as the earthquake hit, there was immediate worry of another tsunami. From his house, Mr. Graham said he could see Thai military boats scouring the sea for any changes signaling a tsunami. "We were nervous and on standby," he said in a telephone interview.

In Sri Lanka, state-run radio and television urged people to leave the seaside in favor of higher ground. In India, officials in New Delhi alerted local officials to tell residents of the coastal area to move at least 200 yards from the water.

The quake’s impact could be felt as far as the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur. Australian meteorologists recorded two waves in the Cocos Islands, some 1,500 miles south of the epicenter; the second of the two waves measured 10 inches.

Scientists said it was too early to conclude that the quake had generated no tsunami at all, particularly along the coast of Sumatra. The Pacific Tsunami Warning System, based in Hawaii, pointed out that areas that had not witnessed abnormally large waves within about two hours of the quake had probably been spared a tsunami.

Speaking to reporters at the United Nations, Jan Egeland, the emergency relief coordinator, said United Nations agencies in the region had received no reports of tsunamis.

Before daylight broke on Tuesday, India, Thailand and Sri Lanka – all hit badly by the December quake – withdrew their tsunami warnings. Late Monday night, they had urged people to leave low-lying coastal areas.

By early Tuesday, there were no reports of abnormal activity on the ocean. The United States military’s Pacific Command, based in Hawaii, said it had received no reports of tsunami damage, said its spokesman, Lt. Col. Bill Bigelow.

The quake on Monday pointed once again to the lack of a tsunami early warning system in Asia. "A little bit stronger earthquake and we could have had a major tsunami in the middle of the night," Mr. Egeland said. "We need that early warning system."

Such a tsunami early warning system exists in the Pacific, but not yet in the quake-prone Indian Ocean, making it impossible for scientists to plan whether and where evacuations should be ordered.

Here in the Indian capital, meteorologists staffing an emergency control room said they could only call for calm and caution along the country’s Indian Ocean coast. "You will not know till it comes," said S. K. Swamy, a meteorologist in the control room. "There is no system of knowing it."

The United States Geological Service reported that the quake on Monday emerged along the same fault line that caused the December quake, which measured 9.3, the world’s biggest in 40 years.

The quake, Mr. Egeland said, caught the relief community better prepared than the disaster last December, not least because many operations were already in place and running.

"We started in the morning of the 27th of December with virtually nothing, and it really hurt our early relief effort after the tsunami," he told reporters. "We start tomorrow morning with 1,000 international aid workers, with several thousand local aid workers in Sumatra alone, with a dozen helicopters, with 50 to 100 trucks, with several landing boats which we can use for these islands, and we have very good working relations with the government of Indonesia both the local and regional levels."

United Nations officials are scheduled to start doing aerial surveys on Tuesday morning to gauge the full magnitude of damage. "My impression is that the system worked far better this time," Mr. Egeland said.

In Washington, the State Department spokesman, Adam Ereli, told reporters that the agency immediately began communicating with its embassies and coordinating with relief agencies in the region.

"We’re applying what we’ve learned from the previous earthquake so that we can be prepared to be responsive quickly and in a meaningful way," he said. "So where we are right now is having alerted all our posts, been in contact with all our posts, putting ourselves in battle mode to be in a position where we can act."

Reporting for this article was contributed by Joel Brinkley and Eric Schmitt from Washington, Jane Perlez and Andrew C. Revkin from New York, and Warren Hoge from the United Nations.

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