Strong earthquake strikes Indonesia's Sulawesi, triggering tsunami alert

JAKARTA: A strong magnitude 6.8 earthquake rocked eastern Indonesia on Friday (Apr 12), the United States Geological Survey said, triggering a tsunami warning and sending panicked residents running from their homes.   

The quake struck at about 7.40pm at a relatively shallow depth of 10 kilometres off the east coast of Sulawesi island, said Indonesia’s geophysics agency. This is on the other side of the island where a 7.5-magnitude quake-tsunami around the city of Palu killed more than 4,300 people last year.

The agency issued a tsunami warning for coastal communities in Morowali district.

The warning was lifted about 40 minutes later. The geophysics agency estimated that the wave was under a half a metre.

It was not immediately clear how much damage was caused by the quake or if there were any casualties, but the USGS warned that considerable damage was possible in poorly built or badly designed structures.

The quake was felt strongly in Palu, despite it being hundreds of kilometres away.

It was also felt in Luwu regency, Morowali and Banggai, said Indonesia’s disaster agency spokesperson Sutopo Puerwo Nugroho. 

“I ran straight outside after the earthquake – everything was swaying,” Palu resident Mahfuzah told AFP.

The quake was “strong and long lasting”, said Gina Saerang, a resident of Manado, the capital of North Sulawesi province, several hundred kilometers from the epicenter.

In Luwuk city in Banggai district, Central Sulawesi, resident Hapsah Abdul Madjid said people fled to higher ground and the electricity was cut, adding that residents panicked as fears soared over an imminent tsunami.

“Friends, I am now in Luwuk Banggai, Central Sulawesi. The earthquake is very strong here. People are running around,” said Twitter user Jay. “Heard that there’s potential for tsumani. Please pray for our safety.”

Thousands in Palu are still living in makeshift shelters, six months after the late September disaster with at least 170,000 residents of the city and surrounding districts displaced. Entire neighbourhoods are still in ruins, despite life returning to normal in other areas of the tsunami-struck city.

The force of the quake saw entire neighbourhoods levelled by liquefaction – a process where the ground starts behaving like a liquid and swallows up the earth like quicksand.

READ: Thousands of kids still homeless 6 months after quake and tsunami hit Palu

READ: At Sulawesi quake’s epicentre, survivors struggle to survive with limited aid

Apart from the damage to tens of thousands of buildings, the disaster destroyed fishing boats, shops and irrigation systems, robbing residents of their income.

Indonesia has said the damage bill in Palu topped US$900 million. The World Bank has offered the country up to US$1 billion in loans to get the city back on its feet.

Indonesia is one of the most disaster-prone nations on Earth due to its position straddling the so-called Pacific Ring of Fire, where tectonic plates collide.

Last year was a particularly tough one, however, with more than 2,500 disasters ranging from a series of deadly earthquakes to killer landslides and volcanic eruptions.

The sprawling archipelago is dotted with more than 100 volcanoes, including one in the middle of the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra islands that erupted in late 2018 and unleashed a tsunami that killed more than 400 people.