Indonesia Earthquake Death Toll Reaches 300, Expected to Rise
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JIM LEHRER: Now, an update on yesterday’s earthquake in Indonesia. It struck the same area devastated by another earthquake, one that created a deadly tsunami three months ago. That one occurred on the British holiday known as Boxing Day, and killed almost 300,000 people. Alex Thomson of Independent Television News looks at what happened this time.
ALEX THOMSON: Gunung Sitoli, the capital of Nias Island. About 30,000 people live here, but at least one-third have fled to the hills as the quake hit buildings across the town. All day they’ve been pulling bodies from the ruins. They’re collected at the main mosque. There is no water, no electricity.
SOFYAN DJALIL (Translated): Roads are cracked. Two-story buildings have collapsed or have been badly damaged. Most of the people started running to higher ground because they were worried about the aftershocks and tsunami.
ALEX THOMSON: Hundreds are certainly dead. It could be thousands. International aid groups are on the island. They say they don’t need money. There’s still plenty of that from the tsunami appeal. In this case, the damage was purely from the earthquake. Although there were waves and disturbance, there was no full- scale tsunami, despite the severity of the tremor.
Late last night, they were streaming out of Banda Aceh in their thousands, heading for any high ground. This was the worst-hit area on Boxing Day. This time, though, they were warned. But the tsunami itself never came.
In Thailand, they stood outside the tourist bars of Phuket and then headed for higher ground, having felt the shock waves. But many foreigners said it was very different this time.
NICK WILLIAMS: Yeah, well, having the alarms along the beach here, they sound off straightaway. They were very loud. I live up on the hill. You could hear them from up there. So I thought it was handled very well. And the rescue service and the police were out straightaway, like within 20 minutes along the beachfront, getting through to people and telling people to go to the hills and so forth.
ALEX THOMSON: Others got the knock on the hotel door this time around in the middle of the night.
INE REUMER: Someone from the hotel came, knocked on the door and said, there might be a tsunami on the way. We’re alerting you. A room has been prepared on the third floor where you can go if the water comes. So it was perfect.
ALEX THOMSON: Along the western coast of Penang Island in Malaysia, again they picked up the warning about 20 minutes after the quake. Right down to local village leaders, the message was relayed. In all, the Malaysian authorities evacuated about 1,000 people from coastal areas. In Penang City, there was some confusion. Hotel manager Derick Tan unable to do much but await instructions and tell his guests don’t panic.
DERICK TAN: I am here to tell, unless I get clearance, we’re waiting for news; we’re calling the rec center. Everyone is very confused now. So stay calm. Please stay calm. Stay where you are. We’ll be getting news, and I will get back to you the moment we have clearance. So for the time being, don’t panic.
ALEX THOMSON: On the whole, people did not panic. But this time, detailed, explicit warnings had gone out to the whole region from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center. It was issued at 16:29 GMT.
ALEX THOMSON: Warning: “This earthquake has the potential to generate a widely destructive tsunami in the ocean or seas near the earthquake. Authorities in those regions should be aware of this possibility and take immediate action. This action should include evacuation of coasts within 600 miles of the epicenter and close monitoring to determine the need for evacuation further away.”
ALEX THOMSON: The warning was certainly heeded. Thailand’s prime minister typically saying it had been acted on effectively, even though the country’s early warning system isn’t yet up and running.
THAKSIN SHINAWATRA: I think it’s very good. Even though we don’t have our system ready yet, but we have the monitoring process that is quite good enough, but we will do better by the end of this month.
ALEX THOMSON: Indian officials said they’d used everything from mobile phone message alerts through radio and TV to ringing temple bells, and they claimed it had been effective without causing panic. Similarly, along the southern and eastern coastlines of Sri Lanka, the main problem this time was congestion on the roads heading out from coastal districts. On Boxing Day, the roads were empty because, by and large, nobody had any idea what was about to come in from the sea.