29 March 2005

Quake upgraded to 8.7

Buildings collapsed, killing "tens" of people on an outlying Indonesian island after a major earthquake, but despite warnings and major panic, officials said on Tuesday there was no tsunami.

An official on the island of Nias, south of Sumatra and close to the epicentre of the magnitude-8.2 sub-sea quake that struck late Monday said hundreds of houses had collapsed in the islands capital Gumung Sitoli.

Many were left trapped under rubble as thousands of residents fled for higher ground, fearing a repeat of the devastating waves that followed a 9.0 earthquake on December 26, causing the deaths of at least 126 000 people.

"I can say that tens of people died but I cannot be sure," Agus Mendrofa, the deputy chief of Nias island told Jakarta's Metro TV station.

"The roads are broken and public facilities were damaged."

He said there were several aftershocks after the main quake.

Indonesia issued a tsunami warning shortly after the quake at 23:15, but meteorologists said that as no ocean upheaval had been reported two hours later, there was no danger.

Yet, a US seismologist said there was a "100%" chance of a tsunami threatening Indian Ocean nations.

Ramlan, an Indonesian meteorological official, said the quake was measured at magnitude 8.0, some 90km southeast of the island of Sinabang, which lies off the southern coast of Indonesia's Sumatra island. Other measurements put the quake at 8.2.

The magnitude was later upgraded to 8.7 from a preliminary reading of 8.2, making it one of the biggest quakes in the last century, the US Geological Survey (USGS) said.

The earthquake, which was felt in neighbouring countries where it sparked similar alerts, caused windows to break in Sumatra's largest city Medan and brief power outages across the island, including the devastated Aceh region.

In Aceh, where the trauma of last year's disaster is still fresh in the minds of many people, there was widespread pandemonium as people fled their homes, running or driving to reach higher ground.

Similar scenes were reported in coastal cities and towns across Sumatra.

Police in Aceh urged people to remain calm while local mosques broadcast similar appeals over their loudspeakers, saying: "Don't panic, there is no tsunami".

Danger not over yet
But from New Delhi it was reported that India's meteorological department had warned that a close watch should be kept on the country's coastal areas for at least "six to eight" hours after the earthquake.

"We have alerted the people. There is a need to keep (a) close watch for ... six to eight hours," SK Swami, director of the emergency response control room in the home ministry.

Swami said the window for any potential tsunamis to strike the Indian coast was longer than during the December 26 disaster because the latest quake occurred in the northeast of Sumatra rather than along the west coast.

"It may take slightly longer this time," he added.


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