Severe Quake Off Indonesia Alarms Three Countries

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia, March 28, 2005 (ENS) - A strong earthquake jolted the city of Banda Aceh and surrounding areas at 11:15 Monday night local time, triggering panic among the people. Many fled inland to higher ground on foot and on motorbikes in fear that the quake, which lasted about two minues, will be followed by another tsunami like the one that devastated Indian Ocean countries last December.

Measured at a magnitude of 8.5, the quake occurred about 200 kilometers off off the northern coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra between the cities of Padang and Medan. The tremor continued for about 2 minutes.

One Sumatran official says the quake was felt in most cities on the island, but no lives were lost, Indonesian officials said.

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Map showing approximate location of today's earthquake. (Photo courtesy USGS)
This quake was the strongest of the series that have been felt in the area since the 9.0 magnitude December temblor and tsunami that claimed close to 300,000 lives and left millions homeless in 11 countries.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii noted the quake but said it does not have sea level gauges outside the Pacific, so it cannot detect or measure a tsunami if one was generated. Scientists said there is no danger of a tsunami in the Pacific Ocean.

Scientists at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warned that this earthquake has the potential to generate a widely destructive tsunami and warned authorities in the regions of the quake to immediately evacuate coasts within 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) of the epicenter.

Thailand's chief meteorologist issued a televised warning that the quake could activate a tsunami in the country's six southern provinces already hit by the December tsunami, but the government did not order evacuations.

Still, thousands of people in the six provinces fled inland to higher ground, said the governor of Phang Nga province.

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Sri Lankan boys stand on remains of their house destroyed by the December 26, 2004 tsunami. (Photo courtesy USGS)
In Sri Lanka, the President's office issued a warning that the earthquake may trigger a tsunami that could reach the island natio's shores by early morning Tuesday local time, and warned those living near the ocean to move to higher ground.

The Geological Survey of Sri Lanka issued a "national warning of an impending natural disaster'' as a precaution.

But at this moment no tsunami has been reported. The Geophysical Data and Information Center in Indonesia has not reported a tsunami on Nias Island which is located very close to the epicenter of the quake.

Today's earthquake is in the aftershock zone on the same fault, or crack, in the Earth's crust as the December quake.

Two more earthquakes with magnitudes greater than 6 have shaken the same area today, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Quakes with magnitudes of 5 to 6.5 have been shaking the region since the first giant quake in December. Previous to that devastating event, the Indian Ocean had not experienced a tsunami in living memory and so no tsunami warning system was in place.

Now, a tsunami early warning system for the Indian Ocean region is under development by UNESCO´s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC). An international coordination meeting held in Paris on March 3 to 8 started the process and outlined the steps it will take to put the warning system into operation.

The second international coordination meeting will be held at Port Louis, Mauritius April 14-16. Mauritius was one of the countries affected by the December tsunami event.