BANGKOK, THAILAND — Rescue workers scrambled today to reach survivors of a 7.6-magnitude earthquake that struck off the Indonesian island of Sumatra as the official death toll topped 500. A second tremor early today triggered further panic in Padang, the stricken city near the epicenter, though without causing further damage.
Government officials put the death toll at 529 and warned that it will rise as more bodies are recovered from the wreckage in Padang, a coastal city of nearly 1 million residents. Rescuers are using mechanical diggers to claw away the rubble and appealing for more equipment to be sent.
The tragedy came one day after an undersea earthquake in the Pacific Ocean triggered a tsunami that pounded the islands of Samoa. The United States has sent aid to American Samoa, and foreign aid is reaching the other, self-governing islands.
Fearful residents stay outside, despite rains
While Wednesday’s quake off western Sumatra didn’t trigger a tsunami, thousands of frightened residents fled to higher ground in fear of a repeat of the 2004 earthquake and subsequent tsunami that flattened Aceh on the northern tip of Sumatra. Many survivors remained outside today, fearful of further aftershocks, despite monsoon rains that lashed the area.
As a result, the city is mostly empty and its streets are strewn with rubble from collapsed concrete buildings, says Ridwan Gustiana, director of Ibu Foundation, a private aid organization. He estimated that 700 buildings in Padang had suffered severe damage and an additional 1,700 were partly damaged.
He said the destroyed buildings included a private hospital, a hotel, a university building, mosques, and rows of concrete houses and shops. A damaged building in the main public hospital had to be evacuated, and patients are being treated outside, he said. Electricity has been cut off.
“The town is quite empty. There’s no one here. People have evacuated to higher ground,” he says.
An official at the public hospital told the Jakarta Globe that doctors were unable to operate on quake victims due to the power outage. Gas stations have run low on fuel for generators and transportation.
Government officials are still trying to assess the damage to the surrounding province of West Sumatra amid reports of landslides and collapsed houses. Their efforts have been hampered by communication blackouts as well as road blockages from the quake damage and bottlenecks of fleeing residents.
Residents are prepared, buildings often not
Padang suffered a similar, less deadly, earthquake in 2007 and has long been seen as highly vulnerable to such disasters. In recent years, residents in low-lying districts have practiced drills in readiness for a tsunami so that they can escape the waves by fleeing to higher ground. Undersea buoys to monitor an active tectonic fault line off Sumatra have been installed with foreign assistance.
But few Indonesian buildings are constructed to withstand major earthquakes. Wednesday’s quake was felt as far away as the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, where some office towers were evacuated.
Indonesia sent relief teams today from the capital, Jakarta, including Army units to look for survivors and deliver food and medicine. International aid agencies said they were sending rapid assessment teams to the area and preparing to rush in supplies. Many shops stayed closed Thursday as traders appeared to be holding on to stocks of food and other staples.
Mr. Gustiana said the first priority was to dig through the rubble for survivors. “We still don’t know if there are people down there,” he says.
Geologic disasters in Indonesia have had widespread effects.