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Worst Indonesian quake may be yet to come

Days of colossal earthquakes and tsunami warnings have forced traumatized villagers to seek safety in the last place imaginable: graveyards. Seismologists warn, however, the worst may be yet to come.
Residents collect their belongings from their damaged houses after a small tsunami
Residents collect their belongings from their damaged homes Friday after a small tsunami hit their village in Bengkulu, Indonesia, earlier in the week.Mast Irham / EPA
/ Source: The Associated Press

Days of colossal earthquakes and tsunami warnings have forced traumatized villagers to seek safety in the last place imaginable: graveyards.

With only plastic sheeting to keep her family dry, Dasima joined hundreds camping in the mud between headstones on the flat, high ground, far from the ocean's reach.

"I am very afraid of another tsunami," the 50-year-old said two days after an 8.4-magnitude quake sent a towering wave into her remote fishing village. "We will stay here until we feel it is safe."

Seismologists warn, however, the worst may be yet to come.

Kerry Sieh, from the California Institute of Technology, has spent decades studying the fault line that runs along Indonesia's seismically-charged western coast. He is one of several experts predicting a repeat of the massive earthquake that triggered the 2004 Asian tsunami, which killed more than 230,000 people in a dozen Indian Ocean nations.

"No one can say whether it will be in 30 seconds or 30 years," he said. "But what happened the other day, I think is quite possibly a sequence of smaller earthquakes leading up to the bigger one."

Dozens of aftershocks
The 8.4 quake that shook Southeast Asia on Wednesday has been followed by dozens of strong aftershocks that have killed at least 13 people, damaged hundreds of homes and churned up a 3-meter (10-foot) -high tsunami. Magnitude 7.8 and 7.1 tremors Thursday were followed by a 6.4 on Friday.

Geologists say the colossal quakes are all on the edge of the Menawai island patch — which last experienced a mammoth temblor in 1833 — and have piled even more pressure onto the fault.

"They are basically like dogs nipping at the heels of the horse," said Sieh. "If a giant earthquake happened tomorrow we would say, 'My God! How much more obvious could it have been?'"

Praise for tsunami warnings
The wall of water that slammed into several fishing villages along Sumatra island's coast Wednesday swept away nearly a dozen houses, but overall damage was "minimal," Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said after an Air Force aerial survey.

Many people said a public awareness campaign launched after the 2004 tsunami paid off, including warnings issued over mosque speakers and training provided by local officials on how to escape a disaster.

"When the earth started shaking, some people yelled, 'It's time to go up the hill ... let's get going," said Fadil, 35, a father of two, describing how he and hundreds of neighbors watched from above as the three-meter (10-foot) wave approached. Hundreds of houses were damaged, but no one died.

Elsewhere, however, electricity blackouts prevented some sirens from going off.

The three massive quakes — together with the 9.0-magnitude temblor in 2004 and a 8.7 tremor in early 2005 — deeply concern experts.

Fears of ‘the big one’
The fault, which runs the length of the west coast of Sumatra about 200 kilometers (125 miles) offshore, is the meeting point of the Eurasian and Pacific tectonic plates, which have been pushing against each other for millions of years, causing huge stresses to build up.

"There is a strong indication this foreshadows the big one," said Danny Hillman, an earthquake specialist at the Indonesian Institute of Science. "We all agree there is an 8.5 or stronger earthquake waiting to happen."

That's exactly what residents along Sumatra's western coast, which is expected to bear the brunt of the next disaster, are worried about. The island was hardest hit by the 2004 tsunami, accounting for nearly two-thirds of the deaths.

In the tiny fishing village of Sungai Pisang, just south of the badly damaged city of Padang, hundreds of people were too scared to return home after the revolcanoes

cent tremors sent a large wave washing into their bay.

Indonesia, the world's largest archipelago, with a population of 235 million people, is prone to seismic upheaval due to its location on the "Ring of Fire," an arc of volcanoes and fault lines encircling the Pacific Basin.