Sun, Sep 16, 2007 - Page 5 News List

Experts predict bigger earthquake yet to come

HEAD FOR THE HILLS A tsunami awareness campaign appears to be paying off as frightened villagers immediately headed for higher ground after Wednesday's quake

AP , PADANG, INDONESIA

Quake victims collect belongings in the ruins of their house in Lais, North Bengkulu, Indonesia, yesterday.

PHOTO: EPA

Days of colossal earthquakes and tsunami warnings have forced traumatized villagers in western Indonesia to seek safety in the last place imaginable: graveyards.

With only plastic sheeting to keep her family dry, Dasima joined hundreds camping in the mud between headstones on the flat, high ground, far from the ocean's reach.

"I am very afraid of another tsunami," the 50-year-old said two days after an 8.4-magnitude quake sent a towering wave into her remote fishing village on the west coast of Indonesia's Sumatra Island. "We will stay here until we feel it is safe."

Seismologists warn, however, the worst may be yet to come.

Kerry Sieh, from the California Institute of Technology, has spent decades studying the fault line that runs along Indonesia's seismically charged western coast. He is one of several experts predicting a repeat of the massive earthquake that triggered the 2004 Asian tsunami, which killed more than 230,000 people in a dozen Indian Ocean nations.

"No one can say whether it will be in 30 seconds or 30 years," he said. "But what happened the other day, I think is quite possibly a sequence of smaller earthquakes leading up to the bigger one.

"And my intuition tells me it will be sooner rather than later."

The 8.4-magnitude quake that shook Southeast Asia on Wednesday has been followed by dozens of strong aftershocks -- including a magnitude 7.8 and a 7.1 -- that have killed at least 21 people, injured 88, damaged hundreds of homes and churned up a 3m high tsunami.

Geologists say the biggest quakes are all on the edge of the Menawai Island patch -- which last experienced a mammoth temblor in 1833 -- and have piled even more pressure onto the fault.

"They are basically like dogs nipping at the heels of the horse," said Sieh, adding that while not enough is known to make reliable predictions, "if a giant earthquake happened tomorrow we would say, `My God! How much more obvious could it have been?'"

The wall of water that slammed into several fishing villages along Sumatra Island's coast on Wednesday swept away nearly a dozen houses, but overall damage was "minimal," Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said after an Air Force aerial survey.

Aid was making its way to hard-hit areas, though some residents claimed it was slow in coming.

With roads damaged and communication cut, getting accurate casualty figures was a challenge. Authorities raised the death toll to 17 yesterday after information came in from remote regions, said Rustam Pakaya, the chief of Health Crisis Center. At least 88 were injured.

Many people said a public awareness campaign launched after the 2004 tsunami paid off, including warnings issued over mosque speakers and training provided by local officials on how to escape a disaster.

"When the earth started shaking, some people yelled, `It's time to go up the hill ... let's get going,'" said Fadil, 35, a father of two, describing how he and hundreds of neighbors watched from above as the 3m wave approached. Hundreds of houses were damaged, but no one died.

Elsewhere, however, electricity blackouts prevented some sirens from going off.

The three massive quakes -- together with the 9.0-magnitude temblor in 2004 and a 8.7 tremor in early 2005 -- deeply concern experts.

The fault, which runs the length of the west coast of Sumatra about 200km offshore, is the meeting point of the Eurasian and Pacific tectonic plates, which have been pushing against each other for millions of years, causing huge stresses to build up.

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