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Hundreds perish in new Indonesia quake

Hundreds of people are dead, and thousands more are displaced in the wake of the 8.7-magnitude earthquake that struck off the coast of Indonesia on Monday, responders say.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | March 28, 2005


"It was the worst devastation I have ever seen and people are living in the worst conditions I have ever seen."

—James Lee Witt


Hundreds of people are dead, and thousands more are displaced in the wake of the 8.7-magnitude earthquake that struck off the coast of Indonesia on Monday, responders say.

Relief groups hurriedly checked on their staff on the ground, who described the post-quake scene as one of panic and trauma as residents were shaken from their beds and ran into the streets. Tsunami warnings were issued, and thousands of people headed for higher ground.

Damage assessments began in earnest as soon as daylight reached affected areas.

Power outages were widespread and communications were down in many affected areas.

The quake lasted for 3-4 minutes, said relief workers. “We have several staff members who felt the quake and described the scene,” said Mark Beach, spokesperson for the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), who said MCC workers were all unharmed. But the trauma was great for relief workers and residents alike, he added. “They said as the quake struck, people started filling the street, moving both ways up and down the streets. Many of them were in tears. And the quake happened there in the middle of the night, when the trauma is even worse, people being shaken from their beds.”

Besides the thousands of injuries and new damages to homes and buildings, the new quake brings serious repeat trauma to hundreds of thousands of people, said Beach and others.

When Beach was in Sri Lanka, he witnessed firsthand the heightened fear among tsunami survivors. “I saw where the normal tide had broken through a barrier, and people near it refused to live in their tents. There was only six inches of water but that was enough to send people away. They are very fearful.”

Many tsunami survivors are likely still in the first stage of their trauma recovery, added Mary Gaudreau, director of care ministries for Oklahoma United Methodist Disaster Response, as well as a field staff consultant for the United Methodist Committee on Relief.

“I would expect that many survivors are still in that first stage of trauma recovery, the ‘safety’ stage, when they are still trying to distinguish between ‘feeling safe’ and ‘being safe,’ ” she said. “The very real possibility that another tsunami might strike blurs that line between the two. I would especially be concerned about children whose limited life experience doesn't allow them a greater perspective about the predictability of normal life.”

The new quake struck when many people are still living in extremely trying conditions after the Dec. 26 tsunami that killed nearly 300,000 people. James Lee Witt, former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and currently CEO of James Lee Witt Associates, said it was the worst disaster he has ever witnessed. Witt recently returned from South Asia, where he assessed damages and made recommendations for long-term recovery and reconstruction. “It was the worst devastation I have ever seen and people are living in the worst conditions I have ever seen,” he said, stressing the need for the entire international community to work together.

“It is important to pull together the strength of the entire international community to be ready to assist affected areas immediately after a disaster of this magnitude,” he said. “The interest of the international community must stay at a high level so that the reconstruction can be completed with adequate resources.”

While Monday’s quake was not predicted, it was not a surprise to geologists and other quake experts, said Carolyn Bell, spokesperson for the U.S. Geological Survey. When the Dec. 26 earthquake occurred, Bell explained, the entire edge of a tectonic plate broke off - about 1,200 miles of the plate. Because the December shifting put new pressure on plates south of the earlier quake, this latest quake was triggered by the Dec. 26 quake, she said. “But the new quake is not an aftershock. It is a separate event. It is a very large earthquake and there will be a lot of damage.”

Aftershocks have measured up to 6.7 in magnitude.

Tsunami warnings were issued but only a small tsunami - equivalent to a high tide - occurred, said Bell. “We would love to be able to determine why some large quakes trigger tsunami and some don’t. But we need to know more about the mechanics of earthquakes to do that.”

Earthquake preparation needs more research and emphasis, she added. “The bottom line is that we can’t stop earthquakes. The earth is dynamic and it moves. But people keep living in the most vulnerable areas.”

Many faith-based disaster response groups - including Church World Service (CWS), Catholic Relief Services (CRS), and others - reported they were assessing damages from the latest quake. Both CWS and CRS have been on the ground in tsunami-affected areas to help coordinate long-term recovery. CWS and CRS both reported their staff were uninjured.

What’s the best way to help? Send a cash donation to a responding group, urged relief experts. Because emergency response will overlap ongoing long-term recovery efforts, response groups will be able to use monetary donations to answer the most pressing needs.


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