BANDA ACEH, Indonesia — The heart of one of the world's most recent and devastating natural disasters was quiet on Wednesday, following an extended tsunami warning and several strong aftershocks from a 8.6-magnitude earthquake that struck off the coast earlier in the day.
Food stalls typically busy with dinner crowds were shuttered. Small groups, mostly men, sat around talking, smoking and waiting. Some people packed bags and headed to the homes of relatives, or into the hills away from the coast.
The capital of Indonesia’s westernmost province and the city most devastated by the 2004 tsunami that killed around 220,000 people across South and Southeast Asia shook for several minutes around 3:30 p.m. Shortly thereafter the country’s Meteorology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) issued a tsunami warning.
Panicked residents jumped on motorbikes or into cars packed with entire families to escape the city, and, possibly, another giant wave, just eight years after the city had worked to recover from the 2004 devastation.
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The wave never materialized, and aside from some reports of broken widows, there was no visible sign of damage. The biggest problem, said police, was traffic as people scrambled to get away from the coast.
Those whose only transportation was by foot headed to the city’s main mosque, which they said they considered a safe haven. Many remembered how, in 2004, the water had washed up just far enough to spare the mosque and the city beyond.
The meteorology agency said small tsunamis of up to 80 centimeters high (2-feet-8-inches) had hit Meulaboh, south of the provincial capital, and the islands of Sabang off Aceh’s north coast. But there were no immediate signs of danger.
The US Pacific Tsunami Warning Center and BMKG have since cancelled their tsunami warnings for the province.
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Almost immediately after the quake, which many here said was the longest temblor they’ve felt since 2004, text messages started circulating about the tsunami warning. Power was out in many places, but many who felt they had fled far enough from the coast crowded around televisions at cafes with power to hear updates.
Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, the spokesman for the National Disaster Mitigation Agency, told reporters sirens had sounded around the city. The local news also reported that the early warning tower near the governor’s office had broadcast a call. But many here said they heard nothing.
As night fell Irma Suriyanti and her husband closed up their small cafe and headed to her older sister’s home. She said she and her three children would sleep there tonight.
“My young son has a little trauma from before and doesn’t want to go upstairs to sleep,” she explained. The family has lived above the cafe since the 2004 tsunami, when the water from the wave washed up to their street.
“The water came up to here,” she said holding her hand at knee level. In her other hand she held a mosquito racquet with a flashlight on the end. Though the power was on, it has been off in some places around the city, and phone lines have been tied up.
“It shook me for a while,” said Suriyanti, referring to her startled nerves following the quake, but things seemed to have returned to normal.
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Others say they’re not afraid, but have no plans to sleep.
“I’ll be aware, be ready,” said Gusman bin Latief, when asked his plan for the evening. “If nothing bad happens, I’ll go home. If there is some disaster, I’ll be ready.”
He was near the coast in 2004, when the wave swept him up and washed him inland. “But that was already a long time ago,” he said, pulling a drag on his cigarette.
On the outskirts of the city many people had gathered to spend the night away from home. Tense faces and red eyes at the mosque earlier revealed the trauma many here have already suffered.
But Gusman and a few other men said because they had no plans to sleep they would wait to watch Real Madrid play football on TV.