On Monday, a strong earthquake struck the ocean floor near the Mentawai islands off the coast of Sumatra in Indonesia. The US Geological Survey measured the magnitude of the quake at 7.5 and a local tsunami warning was issued by the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre. It is unclear whether people in the region received any warning, because authorities later gave an ‘all clear’. However, a localised tsunami struck the shores of the Mentawi islands, destroying hundreds of homes in the coastal villages of Pagai, Betu Monga, Malakopa and Silabu. According to the latest reports, over 160 people are missing and more than 20 people have been found dead. As further information becomes available, it seems likely the death toll will rise further.
Indonesia is regularly hit by earthquakes, because the country lies along the Pacific Ring of Fire, one of the most active volcanic areas in the world. In December 2004, a 9.1-magnitude earthquake resulted in the huge tsunami off the coast of Aceh, which swept across the Indian Ocean. A quarter of a million people died in 13 different countries, most in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand. And in September 2009, another earthquake struck near Sumatra, causing the deaths of more than 1,000.
With telecommunications to the Mentawi islands impaired, reports are still being received of the damage. But it is believed that on the Sough Pagai island, waves reached around 600 metres inland and on the North Pagai island, the water level was higher than the roofs of the local buildings. One official at the regional branch of the Department of Fisheries said that most of the houses in the village of Betu Monga had been swept away. The official believed many of the dead there are women and children. He had heard stories of families who were unable to hold onto their youngsters as they were carried away by the water and reported “a lot of people are crying”. In the nearly village of Malakopa, the official believed that around 80 per cent of the houses had been damaged.
Local policemen have already begun the search for the missing and have set up emergency posts. Officials in the area have called for emergency shelters to be sent, since heavy rain and winds are continuing to lash the area. The affected villages will also need food supplies and long term support to rebuild their shattered communities.
Some Australian surfers who hired a charter boat in the area have also been reported missing, while another group of Australians had a lucky escape. Anchored off Pagai Island, the captain of the group described how their boat began to shake and then there was “an almighty roar”. A towering wall of water brought another boat crashing into them, causing a fire. All on board jumped into the sea and were swept 200 metres inland but they survived. They are the lucky ones.