Pakistan earthquake

People in Karachi, several hundred miles from the epicenter, rush out of their offices after feeling a powerful earthquake that struck Pakistan's Baluchistan province. (Shakil Adil / Associated Press / September 24, 2013)

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – A powerful earthquake rocked a remote part of western Pakistan on Tuesday, killing more than 30 people, injuring dozens and destroying rudimentary houses in the sparsely populated area, according to officials and local media.

Given the remote terrain, officials were bracing for a higher death toll. The U.S. Geological Survey issued a “red” alert, which means that fatalities could exceed 1,000 and damage cost more than $1 billion.

The USGS said the magnitude 7.8 quake struck 145 miles southeast of Dalbandin, in Pakistan's earthquake-prone Baluchistan province bordering Iran.

The temblor hit about 4:30 p.m. and was followed by at least three aftershocks, said Zahid Rafi, director of Pakistan’s National Seismic Monitoring Center.

Local television networks reported that helicopters were dispatched to the disaster area with emergency supplies. The army said it had deployed 200 troops and rescue and medical teams to provide assistance in the emerging crisis.

Tremors lasting as long as a minute caused panic, with reports of people rushing out of their offices and homes in Karachi, the country’s largest city, which is several hundred miles from the epicenter, as well as in other parts of Sindh and Baluchistan provinces. Shaking was also felt as far away as the Indian capital, New Delhi, several hundred miles to the east.

Brig. Kamran Zia of Pakistan's National Disaster Management Authority told the media that at least 33 people were dead and 24 injured.

[Updated 2:55 p.m. PDT, Sept. 24: Other estimates put the death toll as high as 80.]

Television footage showed collapsed houses, caved-in roofs and people sitting in the open air outside their homes, with mud and bricks scattered nearby. Other video showed furniture and other items moving inside homes during the quake.

Among the worst-hit regions was Baluchistan’s Awaran area, near the epicenter. An official with Awaran’s home affairs department, who requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media, said he was receiving reports of at least 30 to 40 people dead, 100 to 50 injured, and 75% to 85% of homes partially or totally destroyed in his area alone.  

“People couldn’t leave their houses,” he said. “We fear there could be huge casualties. The population is scattered, and most of the houses are made of mud and bricks, so the damage is extensive.”

Baluchistan Chief Minister Abdul Malik declared an emergency in Awaran, about eight hours' drive from Quetta, the provincial capital. Awaran has an estimated population of 300,000 people.

Unconfirmed television reports also said a small “island” appeared in the sea, a few hundred feet from the Gwadar coast, after the earthquake. Images taken at some distance showed the apparently new geological formation.

In October 2005, a magnitude 7.6 quake killed about 75,000 people and caused massive destruction in the Kashmir region.

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Twitter: @markmagnier

mark.magnier@Latimes.com

Nasir Khan in The Times' Islamabad bureau contributed to this report.