Sumatra Residents, Used to Quakes, Stunned by Power of New Temblor

SOLOK, West Sumatra ~ Relief operations swung into gear on Wednesday, a day after a powerful quake rocked western Sumatra and rattled office workers in Singapore high-rises.

By Bhimanto Suwastoyo
Agence France-Presse

On Thursday, Welfare Minister Aburizal Bakrie told reporters at the presidential palace that the death toll stood at 73.

Conflicting estimates have caused confusion over the exact toll from the 6.3-magnitude earthquake, which struck on Tuesday, injuring scores of people, damaging thousands of houses and displacing many people.

The force of the earthquake, which was followed by an almost equally powerful aftershock, stunned villagers used to the tremors that often shake this mountainous region of West Sumatra.

“We have earthquakes now and then but nothing as strong as yesterday’s. I have never experienced an earthquake that strong,” said Emi Zurmiati, 42, her eyes reddened from crying.

Speaking in front of a crumbled home in Sumani village, one of the hardest hit areas of West Sumatra’s Solok district, she said her mother and two nieces had been killed in the quake.

The girls died in a fire that swept through a primary school after a wall collapsed on it. Her mother was killed in a narrow nearby alleyway.

Altogether nine people died in Sumani, five of them primary school pupils and the rest women hit in the alley by the same collapsing wall.

Zurmiati, who had been sweeping in front of her home when the quake struck, said the ground shook so strongly that she could not even stand.

“Even crouching, I was tossed right and left,” she said.

The quake’s epicenter was located 49 kilometers northeast of the West Sumatran capital Padang, according to the US Geological Survey, but was also felt in neighboring Malaysia and Singapore.

“This time, it was not only very strong but also lasted a long time,” said 75-year-old Nurbari, a grandmother sitting under a large plastic sheet strung between trees in front of her house in Tanah Garam, a village near Sumani.

“The last time there was such a strong earthquake, that crumpled buildings and left large cracks on the ground. I was still very young. You were not even born then,” Nurbari said.

In the hamlet of Sumagek, near Sumani, about 70 people spent the night in the open, fearful of returning home.

“Everyone, by habit, knows what to do in case of a quake,” said Masri, a 60-year-old farmer. “Run out of buildings. But this time, it (the quake) was extraordinary, really extraordinary.”

Suryadi, a rescue coordinator on Sumatra, said more than 1,000 houses had been completely destroyed and at least 2,500 damaged.

“The latest data we have received is 71 dead in seven districts and cities,” he told AFP.

“We have not received reports of the total number of people injured, but we did receive reports that many people cannot be accommodated by the hospitals.”

Suryadi said the evacuation efforts were still underway and emergency meals were being distributed, although there was a shortage of tents.

“Many people are staying in front of their damaged houses, with whatever they can use as shelter,” he added.

Syafrizal, member of an emergency team in nearby Tanah Datar district, said search efforts there had been called off.

“Now we are concentrating on relief efforts, including providing medical services, distributing aid and helping the population clean up,” he said.

The Netherlands pledged US$2 million to buy immediate necessities, while Canada promised C$250,000.

Indonesia, an archipelago of some 17,000 islands, sits on the so-called Pacific Ring of Fire, where continental plates meet – and where earthquakes are a regular and often deadly occurrence.

The devastating Asian tsunami in 2004 was set off by a massive earthquake off the coast of Sumatra, killing some 168,000 people in Aceh province on its northern tip in a total of 220,000 across the Indian Ocean region.

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