The powerful earthquake that struck off the west coast of Sumatra on September 30th,killing many hundreds of people and trapping thousands more under rubble,was not the giant seismologists had feared. But its impact was still horrendous to behold,and came after a few days when nature had wreaked havoc across Asia.
The terrifying prospect remains of more ruptures along the same fault-line that produced the 2004 Asian tsunami. Indeed,a second,less powerful onshore tremor shook Sumatra on the morning of October 1st,barely 12 hours after the first one. Experts are puzzling over a possible link to an undersea quake thousands of miles away in the Pacific Ocean on September 29th. That tremor triggered a tsunami,which killed more than 100 people,mostly in Samoa and American Samoa.
The initial Sumatran quake,with a magnitude estimated at 7.6,struck close to the coastal city of Padang,home to nearly 1m people. Hotels,mosques and hundreds of other buildings,including hospitals,were damaged. Officials say that the death toll in Padang will certainly rise,possibly into the thousands,as more bodies are found in the rubble.
Less is known about the destruction wrought in communities along the coast and further inland. Blocked roads and bridges and severed phone and power lines have slowed the aid response. Indonesias government has sent in food and medicine on military flights to Padangs airport,which suffered damage but remained open. Heavy-lifting equipment is also being dispatched to rescue those trapped beneath crumpled buildings and to clear the wreckage from the city centre.
Bracketed by shifting tectonic plates,Indonesia is no stranger to seismic disasters. The massive earthquake and tsunami on December 26th 2004 flattened the coastline of Aceh on the northern tip of Sumatra. In May 2006 a 6.3-magnitude quake killed over 5,000 people and left around 1.5m homeless on densely populated Java. Other tremors have shaken Sumatra,including one in 2007 that killed scores in Padang. The latest was felt hundreds of miles away in Singapore and in Kuala Lumpur.
Low-lying Padang is seen as vulnerable to a tsunami and its residents have been trained to flee to higher ground along designated routes when an alert is sounded. Many tried to do so on the night of September 30th,fearing a tsunami was imminent. The result was further chaos on roads clogged by rubble and monsoon rains. A tsunami warning was given,then lifted.
South-East Asia was also grappling with the devastation wrought by Typhoon Ketsana,which ravaged Manila on September 26th,causing the worst flooding for 40 years. Nearly 300 people were dead or missing,and more than 300,000 homeless. In Padang,too,many residents stayed camped outside their houses,awaiting assistance and fearing further aftershocks. Their fears are,sadly,justified.
© The EconomistNewspaper Limited 2009