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Indonesia ‘strike-slip’ earthquakes cause little damage, few deaths

Indonesians assessing the damage from the twin earthquakes that hit Wednesday saw little comparison to the devastation after the 2004 tsunami. Wednesday’s quakes left some buildings damaged but caused few deaths. As The Associated Press reported :

Residents surveying damage from two powerful earthquakes that reignited memories of the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami said Thursday they could hardly believe their luck.

Five people died from heart attacks, and a few others were injured as mobs used cars and motorcycles to flee to high ground in Indonesia’s westernmost province of Aceh — closest to the epicenters.

But aside from cracks in the walls of houses and structural damage to one bridge, you would hardly know anything happened, said Usman Basyah, smiling as he handed change to customers at his small street stall.

“I really feel my prayers were answered this time,” said Basyah, who lost one of his sons in the disaster eight years ago. “I’m so grateful. We’ve gone through enough trauma already.”

Another man, who spent the night in a mosque sheltering hundreds of others who were worried about the regular aftershocks, agreed.

“Of course, I was scared,” said Nasir Djamil. “We all were. But were much better prepared this time. I think we learned from the last nightmare. We knew what we had to do.

That was the sentiment across much of the globe.

The first quake, measuring 8.6, triggered a tsunami watch around the Indian Ocean, from Australia and India to as far off as Africa. Hours later, a powerful 8.2-magnitude aftershock hit.

Warning buoys — put in place after the 2004 disaster that killed 230,000 people in a dozen nations, three quarters of them in Aceh — accurately predicted that the tsunami would not be big.

Sirens sounded along coasts and warnings spread like wildfire by mobile phone text messaging. And, for the most part, evacuations appeared to go smoothly.

Indonesia’s quakes were followed by two temblors in Mexico, raising the question of whether such disasters are occurring more frequently than in the past. As Elizabeth Flock reported:

It’s been called the century of disasters and the decade of disasters and 2011 was the year of disasters. Natural disasters seem to be becoming more common. Wednesday’s two earthquakes in Indonesia were followed by two temblors in Mexico.

But while the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration called last year’s weather the most extreme on record, are there really more earthquakes?

It may look that way, but probably not.

Take a look at this United States Geological Survey table on the frequency of earthquakes each year:

Magnitude Average Annually
8 and higher 1 ¹
7 - 7.9 15 ¹
6 - 6.9 134 ²
5 - 5.9 1319 ²
4 - 4.9 13,000
3 - 3.9 130,000
2 - 2.9 1,300,000

If we compare the USGS averages to 2011, the results paint a scary picture.

In that year, one earthquake struck at a magnitude of 8 or higher (Japan’s tremendously destructive quake and tsunami), 19 earthquakes struck at magnitudes between 7 and 7.9 (a number higher than average), 185 earthquakes struck at magnitudes between 6 and 6.9 (higher than average) and 2,259 earthquakes struck at magnitudes between 5 and 5.9 (again, higher than average.)

One company that did not escape unscathed was KFC Thailand, which found itself in hot water for promoting its products on Facebook for those sheltering from aftershocks. As AP explained:

KFC Thailand has issued an apology after being criticized for a Facebook message that urged people to rush home during Wednesday’s tsunami scare and order a bucket of KFC chicken.

As people were being urged to evacuate from beach areas, the company posted this message: “Let’s hurry home and follow the earthquake news. And don’t forget to order your favorite KFC menu.”

It prompted hundreds of angry comments on a variety of Thai web boards that denounced the company as insensitive and selfish.

By Thursday the message was removed and replaced by one that asked for forgiveness.

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