BENGKULU, Indonesia (Reuters) - Indonesia’s Sumatra island was hit by a series of aftershocks on Thursday after a powerful earthquake toppled hundreds of buildings, killing at least 10 people and burying many others.
A seismologist said the region was lucky to have escaped a tsunami similar to the one that killed more than 280,000 people in 2004.
“There was a tsunami created by the earthquake, it just traveled in a southwest direction away from land,” said Mike Turnbull at Central Queensland University.
The threat lingered. Indonesia’s meteorology agency issued the latest in a series of tsunami warnings late on Thursday after another strong earthquake struck Sumatra. It lifted the warning after a few hours.
The damage from the initial quake was “relatively less” than feared, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono told reporters on Thursday.
“However, we still have to do a thorough assessment. People are better at responding to disasters than in previous years.”
Wednesday’s 8.4 magnitude quake — which took place on the eve of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, and was felt in neighboring Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand — cut communications and sparked panic.
That quake and more than 20 further tremors ranging in intensity from 4.9 to 7.8 repeatedly set off tsunami warnings in Indian Ocean countries. But there were no reports of surges hitting coastlines. The 2004 tsunami was caused by a quake of more than 9 magnitude.
“We are grateful for the fact that the situation wasn’t as bad as we initially thought it would be,” said Muhammad Syamlan, vice governor of Bengkulu province, whose capital Bengkulu was close to the epicenter of the quake.
A Reuters photographer in Bengkulu’s provincial capital said the situation appeared calm, with shops re-opening and people milling around. The province, one of Indonesia’s key coffee-growing regions, has a population of about 1.57 million.
But roads in the north of the province were lined with tents as residents did not want to return to their damaged homes, fearing more tremors. People huddled by fires outdoors to keep warm in drizzling rain.
“When the first quake struck, we ran out of our house. Then we returned to the house to sleep but another big quake hit, so we ran out again. Since then we have been afraid,” said Erfan Riyanto, a driver.
Rustam Pakaya, head of the Indonesian health ministry’s crisis centre in Jakarta, said 10 people had been killed and 51 injured across the region.
“The North Bengkulu area has been identified as the worst hit, with half the area destroyed,” he said.
Nearly 800 houses collapsed and many more were damaged in the area, but the extent of the destruction was not fully known because of the difficulty of reaching or contacting some areas.
The mayor of Padang, the capital of West Sumatra, told Reuters many people were trapped under collapsed buildings.
Indonesia suffers frequent quakes, as it lies on an active seismic belt on the so-called Pacific “Ring of Fire”.
Additional reporting by Harry Suhartono, Adhityani Arga, and Telly Nathalia in Jakarta, John Nedi in Padang, Beawiharta in Bengkulu and Michael Perry in Sydney