The earthquake struck at 11pm local time (6pm Swedish time) on Monday night. It measured 8.7 on the Richter Scale, making it one of the strongest over the last hundred years. The epicentre was about 200km off the west coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The island of Nias seems to have been worst hit with reports indicating major destruction in three towns.
A police spokesman in the Nias town of Gunung Sitoli said:
“We estimate that 70% of the buildings have collapsed.”
The deputy mayor added:
“Gunung Sitoli looks like a ghost town now.”
The new disaster comes just three months after the Asian tsunami disaster, which is believed to have claimed 300,000 lives around the Indian Ocean. The wave was caused by an earthquake measuring 9.0 on the Richter Scale, which hit the same coast about 500km to the north.
Tsunami warnings were issued throughout the Indian Ocean last night as panic gripped locals and holiday makers in Malaysia and Thailand, as well as Indonesia. People in coastal areas were evacuated in Sri Lanka, India, Malaysia and Thailand. The tsunami warnings have now been withdrawn.
A student on Nias described his reaction when he felt the earthquake:
“When the quake started, I rode my motorcycle to the airport because I was scared there’d be another tsunami.”
The two missing Swedes have been on a surfing holiday since December. They’ve hired a house on the island of Bali, which they are using as a base. It’s known they were intending to go to Nias, described as a “surfers’ paradise”, and their relatives have been unable to contact them. The Swedish embassy in Jakarta is considering sending personnel to the island to look for the missing men as communicating with authorities and hotels has been next to impossible.
According to the foreign ministry (UD), there are about thirty Swedes in the affected area, mostly aid workers for the United Nations and Swedish Rescue Services Agency. They have all been accounted for apart from the two missing men.
A couple in their fifties was also initially reported missing, but they have contacted their children and are well. They were staying on the island of Azu, close to Nias.
Yesterday’s earthquake has given the Swedish government an opportunity to show they have learnt some lessons following the heavy and wide-ranging criticism for their reaction to the tsunami disaster.
Lars Danielsson, under secretary of state at the UD, confidently faced the press to report the government’s text book actions:
“The prime minister, king and government are all informed,” he said. Prime minister Göran Persson apparently knew of the earthquake a mere 51 minutes after it was first registered.
Danielsson was also able to say that extra staff had been called in to man a telephone hotline and that the Defence Department, Rescue Agency and the Prime Minister’s Office had already met to discuss the situation. All in stark contrast to the impression of complacency and confusion the government gave following the tsunami disaster.
But there was one question Lars Danielsson could not answer. Where’s Laila Freivalds? The foreign minister bore the brunt of the public’s anger with the government over the tsunami affair. She failed to appear at her desk for 31 hours – a period which included a trip to the theatre.
“I don’t know,” said Lars Danielsson, frankly. “But she’s informed.”