Two Powerful Earthquakes Upend Lives of Thousands
Thursday, October 1, 2009
Thousands of people on Wednesday grappled with the devastation caused by two powerful earthquakes, with landslides leaving scores trapped in rubble in Indonesia and a tsunami in the Samoas flattening villages and sweeping some residents out to sea.
Officials in Indonesia reported finding 200 bodies and said the toll was likely to be much higher, while at least 119 people were killed in the Samoan region.
The Indonesia quake, with a magnitude of 7.6, hit at 5:15 p.m. local time Wednesday. It knocked down buildings, started fires, destroyed roads, and cut off power and communications to Padang, a coastal city of 900,000 on Sumatra island. Buildings swayed hundreds of miles away in neighboring Malaysia and Singapore.
In sprawling, low-lying Padang, the shaking was so intense that people crouched or sat on the street to avoid falling. Children screamed as thousands of people tried to get away from the coast in cars and on motorbikes, honking horns.
The quake occurred a day after a killer tsunami hit islands in the South Pacific. It was along the same fault line that spawned the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed 230,000 people in 11 nations.
In Samoa, the tsunami was caused by a magnitude-8.0 quake that unleashed four waves 15 to 20 feet high. They roared ashore within minutes of the temblor, which hit at 6:48 a.m. local time Tuesday, and spread a mile inland authorities said.
On Tuesday evening, President Obama issued a major disaster declaration for American Samoa, which is about 120 miles from the quake's epicenter, and the first U.S. relief flight arrived Wednesday in the island's capital, Pago Pago, where debris had to be cleared from the runway.
The C-130 cargo flight out of Hawaii carried supplies and emergency officials, and it was to be followed Wednesday by a Navy frigate and a second plane carrying food, water, medicine, and medical supplies and personnel, said W. Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"Our focus is on life safety, life sustainment and getting resources in there to support the governor and his team," Fugate said in a telephone briefing with reporters, referring to Gov. Togiola Tulafono. "Our focus is on the immediate needs of the injured and the thousands, tens of thousands of survivors down there," he added.
Time and distance will constrain the U.S. response. American Samoa is roughly 2,300 miles southwest of Hawaii and 4,500 miles from the west coast of the United States, he said.
U.S. officials said they expect to provide relief materials for weeks by sea as well as more urgent materials by air. "This will not be a short-term response based on reports of damage," Fugate said.
In Pago Pago, the streets and fields were filled with debris, mud, overturned cars and several boats as a major cleanup effort stretched into the night. Several buildings in the city -- just a few feet above sea level -- were flattened. Power was expected to be out in some areas for up to a month.
Water service has been restored to many villages, but power is still out in most areas. More than 1,000 people spent the night in 15 emergency shelters.
After the earthquake in Indonesia on Wednesday, a tsunami warning was issued for countries along the Indian Ocean, but it proved unnecessary. There were no reports of giant waves in western Indonesia, but the destruction was vast. Early Thursday, a shallow inland earthquake struck, with a preliminary magnitude of 6.8, the U.S. Geological Survey said.
Wednesday's earthquake flattened buildings and felled trees in Padang, damaged mosques and hotels, and crushed cars. In the gathering darkness shortly after the quake, residents fought some fires with buckets of water and used their bare hands to search for survivors, pulling at the wreckage and tossing it away piece by piece.
"This is a high-scale disaster, more powerful than the earthquake in Yogyakarta in 2006, when more than 3,000 people died," Health Minister Siti Fadilah Supari said, referring to a major city on the main Indonesian island of Java.
Staff writer Spencer S. Hsu in Washington contributed to this report.