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Press Briefing On Indonesian Earthquake

Press Briefing


While no reports had been received of a tsunami wave yet, there was deep concern among the already mentally scarred population, United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator and Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Jan Egeland, said at a press-conference arranged hours after a massive earthquake hit off the west coast of Indonesia’s Sumatra island today.

Speaking to the press three months after an even stronger earthquake had triggered a tsunami that killed hundreds of thousands of people in South-East Asia, he said: “This is not an aftershock -- this is what is called ‘a great earthquake’ -- one that ranges from 8 to 9 on the Richter scale”. Some 10,000 people were reported to live on the islands within 50 kilometres of the epicentre. The earthquake had struck in the middle of the night, local time. So far, there were only limited reports of damage, but the earthquake had caused “a lot of panic” on Indonesia’s Sumatra island. There were also unconfirmed reports of people dead under collapsed structures on the island of Nias. More limited damage had been reported on the Aceh Selatan island.

Early tsunami warnings had been issued in all the countries of the region, he continued. Evacuation had begun, and the system seemed to be working “reasonably well”. For example, in a town of Calang, which had been virtually wiped out by the December tsunami, evacuation paths had been cleared, and in the middle of the night, people had evacuated to high-lying areas. However, it could take several hours to know whether the quake had generated a tsunami.

There were over 1,000 international relief workers in Sumatra and around 300 international relief organizations present in the area of the devastation, he said. Immediately after the news of the earthquake had been received, an Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs team had contacted all United Nations offices in Sumatra, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Maldives, India, Bangladesh, Somalia and Kenya -- the countries exposed to a possible tsunami. After dawn, it would be necessary to use the newly available tools, including helicopters and trucks, to survey the damage.

Although the international community was now in a very different situation than it had been on 26 December, the new disaster could cast shadows not only on relief efforts, but also on the reconstruction in the areas that had suffered from the December tragedy. Since then, many people had returned to the low-lying coast areas, but now, a “new fear” arose: “Is it too early, can we start rebuilding?” There was concern that the structures damaged in the previous disaster could collapse in a smaller-scale earthquake. There was a possibility that that was what had happened in Nias.

Asked how long it normally took to detect a tsunami, Mr. Egeland said that it depended on the configuration of the fault line and the depth of the ocean at the epicentre of the earthquake. The wave would normally form immediately after an earthquake, but it took time to travel. So far, there were no signs of a tsunami, but it was too early to draw final conclusions in that regard. According to seismologists, this time, the impact had moved in the southern direction, as opposed to the mostly northern direction last December.

To several other questions, he replied that although the early-warning system for the Indian Ocean was expected to be up and running only by 2006, his impression was that the system had worked far better this time. Not only had information been passed to the countries, the governments had also passed it to local authorities. Most people had been warned of the danger, but it would be possible to assess the general level of success only tomorrow. There was now contact between geological survey stations in the United States, Japan and other countries with most government and civil defence authorities in the region. As it was most important to contact the people, it was necessary to work on creating a system that could “get down to the fishing villages” level.

Responding to a question if one should rebuild in the areas affected by tsunami, Mr. Egeland said “yes, one should rebuild”. However, one should not rebuild without knowing of the dangers involved. As one should also not live in the structures that could collapse, it was also probably better to live in tents for several more months than return to unsafe buildings. He believed that people should be able to decide their own destiny, and it was wrong to forbid anybody to go home. However, in such cases, the importance of an early-warning system could not be overemphasized.

On the response to the December tragedy, he said that it had been one of the most effective relief efforts ever. The jury was still out, however, as to whether the international community would be as energetic and effective in the reconstruction effort. It was important to keep up the pace, give the people their livelihoods back and to do it not in the years, but weeks and months to come.

As today’s events were bringing the region back into the headlines, could they represent a silver lining for collecting the pledges made? a correspondent asked. Mr. Egeland replied that he hoped that the earthquake would remind those who had not “paid up” to honour their pledges. In general, as the situation was “more or less secure” with the tsunami relief, his worry was much greater for the subject of his next meeting with the Secretary-General -- Darfur. In the near future, money would be urgently needed for the whole of the Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and for those countries where there was “zero money”, including Côte d’Ivoire, Central African Republic, Guinea and Burundi.

To a question regarding the supplies that would be needed in the area of the earthquake tomorrow, he said: “We should be fine with what we have there.” There had been nothing there on the morning of 27 December. Tomorrow, however, the relief efforts would start with over 1,000 international aid workers, several thousand local aid workers in Sumatra alone, with a dozen helicopters, up to 100 trucks and boats.

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