Patong breathes easy after tsunami scare

PATONG: Following the high state of tsunami alert last night, after a major quake off the coast of Sumatra – followed by several powerful aftershocks – it’s business as usual for the Phuket tourism industry, despite the excitement.

Indonesian government authorities issued a tsunami warning after a powerful earthquake measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale jolted parts of Indonesia’s Java and Sumatra islands at 6:10 pm.

The United States Geological Survey center (USGS) reported that the quake occurred 130 kilometers (80 miles) southwest of Bengkulu, Sumatra, which is 695km (435 miles) south-southwest of Singapore. The epicenter was recorded at a depth of about 30km.

The USGS also reported a magnitude 7.1 quake in the Kepulauan Mentawari region of Indonesia at 10:35 this morning. That quake, at a depth of 10km, was recorded by the National Disaster Warning Center (NDWC) in Nonthaburi, which has yet to issue any alerts but remains in a state of high readiness.

After a national television broadcast broke the news to the Thai public about 7:30 pm last night, seaside bars and shops in Patong quickly closed as throngs of people headed calmly for higher ground. Traffic jams were reported along Phra Barami Rd, the road which traverses Patong Hill.

Closer to the beach, Kathu Traffic Police switched traffic flow along the road from two-way to one-way, heading away from the beach. Access to the beach road was temporarily restricted last night to facilitate the people trying to leave the area – despite the lack of any official warning advising them to do so.

On Sainamyen Rd in Patong, people walking to safety zones congregated outside 7-Elevens and Family Mart stores, which were doing a brisk trade in alcohol sales as cars and motorbikes slowly moved away from the beach.

Conversations focused on the devastation caused by the tsunami that struck the Andaman coastline on December 26, 2004. Of the people the Gazette spoke to, many of the regular visitors to Phuket were not overly worried.

Last night’s earthquake was initially reported as 8.2 in magnitude, compared with the 9.0 earthquake in 2004. Another large quake off Sumatra registering 8.7 on the Richter scale on the night of March 28, 2005 also failed to produce a tsunami.

Following news of the initial quake, Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont ordered the National Disaster Warning Center (NDWC) to monitor the situation closely. From Phuket Provincial Hall, Phuket Vice-Governor Worapoj Ratthasima urged all officials and residents to stay tuned and brace for a tsunami as a precaution, as did governors of other Andaman coast provinces.

NDWC Director Dr Smith Dharmasaroja said that he believed the earthquakes posed no danger to the six Andaman provinces, so there was no need to activate the warning-tower sirens or warning messages.

However, the fact that the warning towers had not sounded any sort of warning was cause for concern for some.

As the hours passed, people started returning to the main nightlife areas of the resort town. Many businesses remained closed for the night, however, and the beachfront road was still quiet at 10:30 pm.

Aroon Kerdsom, who heads the provincial branch of the Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation (DDPM-Phuket), said his staff were last night ordered to report to the island’s 19 tsunami warning towers with emergency vehicles and equipment, though he stressed that the move was strictly precautionary.

The DDPM-Phuket did not evacuate people from small outlying islands as had happened in parts of Krabi and Phang Nga and his staff were told to inform the public not to panic, he said.

However, many people in low-lying coastal areas did just that, finding televised reports of the quake enough to warrant evacuation.

About 9 pm, some 80 people evacuated the Laem Tukkae area for the safety of Phuket Provincial Hall, while some coastal residents of Rawai moved up off the beach to higher ground. Both locales are home to Sea Gypsy communities.

Many residents of Kamala, which was devastated by the 2004 tsunami, did not wait for a warning before fleeing in panic to the safety of the nearby Nakkerd Hills.

K. Aroon asked the public to put faith in the information released by the DDPM and not to panic or evacuate areas unless advised to do so.

Regional testing of the NDWC’s tsunami early warning system on July 25 had revealed problems at three of the island’s 19 warning towers: Ao Makham, Kata Noi and Nai Harn. NDWC staff had since effected repairs on all three towers, which in some cases was as simple as cutting down trees impeding sound waves from traveling unobstructed, he said.

Following this morning’s quake V/Gov Worapoj said tourists need not worry about a tsunami as the government has a fully functional warning system in place and is prepared to issue a timely evacuation warning should it be necessary.

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