Wednesday, September 30, 2009

At Least 200 Die as Quake Hits Indonesia Island

HONG KONG — The Indonesian city of Padang was in chaos on Thursday — fires burning, dazed residents wandering the streets, thousands of people reportedly trapped beneath the rubble of collapsed buildings — after a powerful earthquake struck the island of Sumatra.

The quake, which hit Wednesday evening just off Padang with a magnitude of 7.6, has killed at least 200 people, according to Priyadi Kardono, a spokesman for the National Disaster Management Agency. The death toll was almost certain to rise, he said, as rescuers dug into collapsed homes, hospitals, offices and a school.

On Thursday morning, just as the airport was reopening and rescue teams were setting to their heavy, horrible work, the city was rattled by another quake, this one registering 6.6.

The epicenter was 140 miles southeast of the Padang quake, according to the United States Geological Survey.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center quickly issued a bulletin saying that the quake had struck “too far inland to generate a destructive tsunami in the Indian Ocean.”

Padang, a port city of 900,000, is on the west-central coast of Sumatra, Indonesia’s largest island. The western coast is stippled with dozens of volcanoes, and Padang also sits alongside the Sunda Trench, part of the notorious Ring of Fire, the volatile network of volcanic arcs and oceanic trenches that partly encircle the Pacific Basin. The ring — and Sumatra in particular — is a zone of frequent earthquakes and volcanic activity.

Elsewhere in the basin, on Tuesday, an underwater earthquake measuring 8.0 created a tsunami that sent massive walls of water crashing into the islands of Samoa, American Samoa and Tonga.

Reports from government officials, the police, aid workers and news agencies showed Thursday that at least 122 people had been killed by the tsunami — 83 on Samoa, 30 on American Samoa and 9 on Tonga.

There also were reports of 145 people injured, some of them critically, and dozens of villages were demolished throughout the islands. Many beachside resorts were wiped out, along with homes, boats and businesses. Widespread devastation also was seen on television footage from the American Samoan capital, Pago Pago.

“It is the worst one we have had,” said Lilo Malava, the police commissioner of Samoa, in a telephone interview.

The tsunami — described by the governor of American Samoa as a series of four major waves — arrived with so little warning that many residents and tourists were caught unawares.

Filipo Ilaoa, deputy director of the American Samoa office in Honolulu, said that the tsunami struck the territory’s coast in “a matter of minutes” after the quake and that many residents would not have had much time to run for higher ground.

“American Samoa is a small island, and most of the residents are around the coastline,” he said. “There was no warning or anything at all. By the time the alert was out of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, it had already hit.”

New Zealand and Australia dispatched cargo flights and observation planes to the Samoas. And President Barack Obama authorized federal funds to supplement local relief and recovery efforts on American Samoa, a U.S. territory.

The epicenters of the Samoan and Indonesian quakes were located about 6,000 miles apart but brought back vivid memories of the horrific tsunami that ravaged South Asia and Southeast Asia on December 26, 2004. Nearly a quarter-million people across the Indian Ocean region were killed.

The undersea earthquake that caused the Samoan tsunami and the Wednesday-evening quake in Indonesia, while from similar causes, were not directly connected, according to Julie Dutton, a geophysicist at the National Earthquake Information Center in Golden, Colorado.

Both occurred in spots where one plate of the earth’s crust is subducting, or sliding beneath another plate. In spots, the two plates can become stuck until accumulating pressure leads to a sudden heaving release of energy. Under the sea, if the quake is around a magnitude of 8.0 or stronger and the seabed shifts in a way that moves a lot of water, the result is the high-energy waves of a tsunami.

The deeper the epicenter under the seabed, the less potential there is for a tsunami. In Sumatra, the depth of the epicenter was 49.7 miles, according to the United States Geological Survey. In Samoa, it was just 11.2 miles below the seabed. For coastal areas close to the epicenter of a strong undersea earthquake, there is also little time for a formal tsunami warning to be sounded, Ms. Dutton said.

The United States was concentrating its rescue efforts on American Samoa, sending two cargo planes from Honolulu to the area on Wednesday, said Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“We’re looking at both an airlift and a sealift,” Mr. Fugate told reporters in a conference call. “This will not be a short-term response.”

Mr. Fugate said that it was clear the tsunami had caused a “major disaster” but that it was too early for his office to provide or confirm estimates of deaths, injuries or property damage.

In Sumatra on Wednesday, officials feared the death toll was likely to rise. Priyadi Kardono, a spokesman for the National Disaster Management Agency, said Thursday that at least 200 people had died.

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