- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 29, 2005

A powerful undersea earthquake struck off the coast of Indonesia yesterday, killing hundreds of people, sending thousands more fleeing for high ground in fear of a repeat of the Dec. 26 tsunami that left about 300,000 people dead or missing.

Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla told El Shinta radio yesterday that he expected as many as 1,000 to 2,000 people may have died in the 8.7 magnitude quake.

The epicenter of the 11:06 p.m. quake was just 110 miles southeast and on the same fault line as the center of December’s 9.0 magnitude quake, prompting tsunami watch centers from Hawaii to India to spring into action.

But fears of a repeat of the terrifying tsunami eased as officials in countries at risk reported their coasts clear of the killer waves, the Associated Press reported.

Tremors were felt as far as Singapore and Thailand, where some 4,000 tourists and locals were evacuated from Phuket-area beaches.

The greatest damage was suffered on Nias, an island with 30,000 residents southwest of Sumatra’s Aceh province.

“It is predicted — and it’s still a rough estimate — that the numbers of dead may be between 1,000 and 2,000” given the damage to buildings, Mr. Kalla said.

Nias island, popular with surfers, already had been slammed by December’s quake, which left 340 persons dead and 10,000 homeless.

Agus Mendrofa, deputy mayor of the island’s largest town, told the same radio station that at least 296 persons had died in Gunungsitoli.

“Hundreds of buildings have been damaged or have collapsed,” he said.

Police were pulling bodies out of the rubble of the town’s collapsed houses late into the night.

Although powerful, yesterday’s two-minute quake did not have the same catastrophic impact as December’s temblor, which caused the seabed to rise up as much as 60 feet.

But for those living with the physical and psychological scars of that earthquake, panic surged. People ran through the streets clutching their children and whatever belongings they could and fled for higher ground, AP said.

The quake again demonstrated the importance of developing a tsunami warning system for the Indian Ocean region, similar to one already in place for the Pacific Ocean.

There were no warning sensors in the Indian Ocean on Dec. 26 to predict a tsunami and no alert system to trigger evacuations. Until a system can be worked out by international organizations for future warnings, the United States and Japan have taken responsibility for the region.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii issued yesterday’s warning at 11:29 a.m. Eastern Standard Time (EST) to Japan, which then alerted the affected countries. Reports of the tidal-wave warning and evacuations appeared on foreign news wires within 20 minutes.

In New York, U.N. Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland told reporters that new systems put in place after the December tsunami should speed up the delivery of aid to the latest victims.

Three months ago, there were no international relief organizations in the region and little aid infrastructure in place, he said. Today, there are more than 1,000 foreign relief workers on Sumatra alone, and at least 300 international aid organizations operating in the region.

He said a dozen helicopters were available to fly over isolated Indonesian islands shortly after dawn today, and as many as 100 imported cargo trucks would be ready to deliver supplies. Landing craft will bring assistance to the affected islands.

Jonathan Evans, the country representative for Catholic Relief Services in Indonesia, said last night that Banda Aceh residents had begun returning to their homes after realizing that the threat of a tsunami had passed.

Mr. Egeland said yesterday’s quake demonstrated the danger of allowing people to return too quickly after the December tsunami.

“We should rebuild, but not without knowing about the dangers,” he said. “If there are earthquakes to come, it’s better to live in a tented camp for a while more rather than go back to a place that might collapse.”

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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