GUIUAN, Philippines – Over 100,000 people on the Philippines’ Pacific coast returned to their homes on Saturday after fleeing in terror when a major offshore earthquake triggered a tsunami warning.
Most of the residents had fled the east coast by the time waves of up to half a meter (20 inches) hit coastal areas within an hour of the 7.6-magnitude temblor striking offshore late Friday, civil defense chief Benito Ramos said.
“They feared they would be swamped by waves as large as those in the (March 2011) Japan tsunami, so it was not difficult to convince them to leave,” he told Agence France-Presse.
“Most of them returned home after the tsunami alert was lifted just after midnight (1600 GMT Friday), although about 50 families remained at evacuation centers, fearing a tsunami could still strike.”
Police said 132,241 people evacuated overnight, during which the Philippines was rocked by 139 aftershocks, the strongest recorded at a magnitude of 6.4, the state seismology office said.
The quake also triggered a landslide that killed a woman and injured her grandchild on the southern island of Mindanao, Ramos said.
About 140 aftershocks have been recorded, including two with a magnitude of 6.4, said Renato Solidum, chief of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology.
Evacuations were ordered for the east coasts of the large islands of Samar, Leyte, and Mindanao, impoverished areas that are pounded annually by many of the up to 20 typhoons and storms that hit the country every year.
Samar resident Rosita Abodi took her large extended family of 17 including nephews, nieces and grandchildren back home near the coast of Guiuan, about 140 kilometers (90 miles) from the quake’s epicentre, before dawn.
“It was a full moon, and my brother said he saw the water retreat from the shoreline. He was the one who warned us to leave,” said the 60-year-old woman, who was back at work serving food at her small cafe on Saturday.
“When we heard the news we ran, because there was no transport available. We slept on cardboard boxes on the floor of a schoolroom. We did not have any blankets or mosquito nets,” she told AFP.
Abodi said it was the first time in her life that she was forced from home in Guiuan, a fishing town on the southern tip of Samar, despite the area lying within the Philippines’ typhoon belt.
Roman Catholic parish priest Lope Robredillo said Samar’s entire east coast suffered a power outage from the quake, but he did not see any visible damage to the town’s buildings and roads.
“People here are used to typhoons, but a tsunami is a different proposition because Guiuan is almost entirely surrounded by water,” said the 56-year-old.
The Guiuan mayor, Annaliza Kwan, said on radio in Manila in a telephone interview that between 8,000 and 9,000 of the town’s 44,000 residents fled the tsunami. She could not be reached for comment by AFP.
In Leyte, Tacloban city mayor Alfred Romualdez told the station between 3,000 and 4,000 people were evacuated, but damage was limited to broken glass at a shopping mall.
“It was very strong. My house was making sounds,” Bem Noel, a member of the Philippine House of Representatives, said in a telephone interview from Tacloban city on the eastern coast of Leyte island near Samar.
“You talk to God with an earthquake that strong,” he said.
Tacloban resident Digna Marco said that the quake toppled a figurine on top of her TV set and that her son had to hold their desktop computer to prevent it from falling to the floor. The lights over her dining room were swinging, she said.
“My neighbors and I have evacuated. We are now on our way to the mountains,” fisherman Marlon Lagramado said before the tsunami warnings were lifted, in a telephone interview from Guiuan.
The Philippine archipelago is located in the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” where earthquakes and volcanic activity are common. A magnitude-7.7 quake killed nearly 2,000 people in northern Luzon Island in 1990.