A magnitude 8.1 earthquake, the strongest temblor to be reported anywhere in the world in the last four years, jolted the island of Guam on Sunday at the same time a tropical storm was lashing the U.S. territory with high winds and heavy rains.
The temblor caused 71 injuries. It also knocked out power and water for more than 12 hours and did substantial damage to buildings on the west Pacific island.
Manfred Pieper, the chairman of the Guam Hotel and Restaurant Assn., said all of the approximately 7,000 tourists on the island, mainly from Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, were evacuated safely from hotels that sustained considerable damage. However, many of the tourists were soaked by Tropical Storm Steve for hours as they waited at outdoor assembly points.
The storm passed the island and is expected to become a typhoon sometime today.
The Guam Civil Defense Office broadcast warnings to the island’s 133,000 permanent residents, telling them not to use several bridges until they could be inspected for damage. The office said at least one bridge had collapsed, but it also gave reassurances that the main hospital and other disaster facilities were operating on auxiliary power.
No major damage or casualties were reported at five U.S. military installations on the 30-by-8-mile island. Guam is in the Mariana chain, about 1,300 miles east of the Philippines. It has been a U.S. territory since 1898.
The National Earthquake Information Center at Golden, Colo., put the epicenter of the earthquake, which struck at 6:34 p.m. Sunday local time (1:34 a.m. PDT) about 35 miles below the surface of the Pacific and about 50 miles west-southwest of Agana, the capital of Guam.
The temblor was also felt strongly on the island of Saipan, about 150 miles north of Guam, but there were no immediate damage reports from there.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Honolulu quickly issued an alert for possible seismic sea waves but canceled it 2 1/2 hours later when it was determined that only a small tsunami had been generated.
Michael Blackford, the geophysicist in charge at the center, said a six-inch surge of water was recorded both on Guam and about 10 hours later in the Hawaiian Islands, but they fell far below a threatening level. He attributed the lack of a major tsunami to the great depth of the earthquake.
Dana Williams, an assistant editor at the Pacific Daily News in Agana, said she had been talking with one of the newspaper’s photographers when “it started shaking, and I thought it was a little quake like we sometimes get. But then it got really strong and things were flying in our office. Some of our staff were screaming to get out, but I got under my desk.
“We’ve got six bridges out, there are rockslides into the streets, and some parts of the island are not accessible by road,” she said. “There was really heavy rain at the time, and a lot of buildings were cracked and had to be emptied. So everybody got wet as well as shaken.”
Pieper, the general manager of the Hilton Hotel, said that all those staying in the island’s hotels were evacuated but that he was able to allow his 800 guests back into a relatively undamaged wing and the hotel’s ballroom a couple hours later.
“It was not a very convenient night for them, but they are safe,” Pieper said. “The center part of the hotel, the oldest, is completely out of order. We fear severe structural damage. And our brand-new 237-room tower, the highlight of a $100-million renovation, has some damage. I am a bit disappointed.”
The Associated Press reported that two floors of the Royal Palm Hotel collapsed and firefighters had to use axes to knock down doors to free some guests. A parking garage roof gave way, crushing some unoccupied cars, at the Guam Reef Hotel.
Some water lines were also reported broken, and a police official said that in one case, automobiles had been swept off a bridge during the shaking.
Carl Gumataotao, spokesman for the Civil Defense Office, said the island’s governor, Joseph Ada, after a preliminary assessment, reported “a lot of damage to commercial buildings, a lot of cracks.” Power was out all night throughout the island, he said, but it was expected to be fully restored later today.
He added that almost all of those injured had suffered no more than cuts and bruises and were released from the hospital after treatment.
The Guam International Airport was closed briefly but reopened when communications were restored.
The U.S. Geological Survey’s resident geophysicist, Paul Hattori, said the temblor was a “long-period undulating earthquake” that gradually grew and lasted between 30 and 60 seconds.
Later, at least four aftershocks over magnitude 5 were reported.
Guam, like other islands in the Marianas, is volcanic in origin, and Stuart Koyanagi, an assistant at the National Earthquake Information Center, said Sunday that the first indications pointed to a subduction earthquake, in which one of the great tectonic plates that float on the molten core of the Earth thrusts upward under another.
The Marianas have been a frequent site of major earthquakes. Koyanagi said this was the 19th of magnitude 7 or greater since 1900 and that there had been one “great” earthquake--one stronger than 8.0--prior to Sunday, an 8.1 temblor in 1902, although that was centered about 350 miles north of Sunday’s quake.
The most recent stronger earthquake in the world was a magnitude 8.2 temblor near Macquarie Island in the Pacific, 1,000 miles south of New Zealand, in May, 1989.
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