Panic As Tremors Jolt Kenya

Published: 25 July 2007 0:00 CET

Anthony Mwangi, Kenya Red Cross Society

Earthquakes are extremely rare in Kenya and so when Kenyans were jolted by upto ten tremors within a span of one week from Thursday, 12th July 2007, there was a lot of reason for a countrywide panic. Fear gripped workers working in high-rise buildings resulting in thousands of people avoiding their offices, while other buildings were evacuated.

“We had a restless night after the first tremor. We had all moved out of our five storey building with our belongings and entered into our vehicles and prepared to leave,” said Ms. Aqilah Kauser, a resident of Nairobi.

“I am requesting all Kenyans to be diligent and watch out for any signs of an earthquake,” said Dr. Alfred Mutua, Government Spokesman, as he attempted to calm the nerves of wary residents living in Kenya’s major cities and towns of Nakuru, Nairobi, Nyeri, Kiambu, Embu and Mombasa and parts of Central and Eastern provinces.

The tremors were also felt all over East Africa, including Arusha, Dar-el-Salaam and Kampala. There have been no reports of injuries or damage to property. The low magnitude earthquakes have raised concern and panic due to their increasing frequency and magnitude on the Richter Scale.

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) located the epicentre at 145 km (90 miles) SSW of Nairobi. The lowest tremor measured 3.4 on the Richter Scale and was experienced on Sunday, 15th July 2007 at 11.24 GMT, while the highest measured 6.1 on Tuesday, 17th July 2007. “Nairobi and other major towns are at a high risk if a tremor’s magnitude exceeds 6.5 on the Richter Scale,” warned Mr. Peter Ambenje Assistant Director of Meteorological Services.

The tremors are said to be emanating from an epicentre located at Lake Natron in North Eastern Tanzania, near the border with Kenya. They have arisen from volcanic activity being experienced in Ol Donyo Lengai Mountain, South of Lake Natron, in a phenomenon known as the seismic swarm. “A seismic swarm is an episode of high earthquake activity, which the largest earthquake does not occur at the beginning of the episode and in which the largest earthquake is not substantially larger than other earthquakes of the episode,” noted a source from the USGS.

“The distance between Nairobi and Natron helps reduce the magnitude of the seismic waves, which is normally moderated by distance. It may in the end lead to reduced damage in the areas affected,” said Mr. Lojomon Biwott the Government’s Chief Geologist. Geologists from the University of Nairobi have termed this phenomenon as “highly unusual” due to their frequent levels and increasing magnitude.

Latest reports indicate that Ol Donyo Lengai Mountain erupted on Friday, 20th July 2007 and spewed its molten lava. The eruption may have reduced the frequency of the tremors, but preparedness measures by the government and humanitarian agencies were already in top gear.

The Kenya Red Cross Society went into high alert and organised its Branch networks countrywide to respond appropriately should there be a full-fledged disaster. “We have urged our Branches to ensure that the volunteers are ready to be mobilised on short notice, ensure that the warehouse stocks and logistics are in order, and that all the necessary resources will be channelled to the emergency for effective response,” said Mr. Ahmed Abdi, the Head of Disaster Preparedness and Response, Kenya Red Cross Society.

The National Operation Centre of the Office of the President chaired a key stakeholders meeting of emergency stakeholders and agencies. The meeting, held on 18th July 2007, comprised Kenya Red Cross Society, police, armed forces, fire brigade, Ministry of Health, Meteorological department, and other key stakeholders and experts. The meeting agreed to boost the capacities of the following fields; Medical relief, Search and rescue, Provision of food and non-food relief items, and Dissemination of information to the general public.

A number of sub-committees were set up during the meeting to follow up these key preparedness areas. Kenya Red Cross was assigned the following tasks; pre-hospital care services such as ambulance services and use of emergency responders, field hospital management and First Aid, tracing of missing persons, provision of shelter, water and sanitation services and ensuring a well-coordinated logistics support.

According to the Architectural Association of Kenya, most tall buildings would crumble under a major earthquake due to their lack of adherence to building standards.

“Owners of all buildings need to comply with safety regulation as these requirements are not optional but legal procedures that should be followed,” asserted Dr. Alfred Mutua.

Kenya has not experienced a major earthquake since 1928 when the worst earthquake in Kenya’s geological history was experienced in the Subukia area. However, the eastern arm of the Rift Valley, which slices Kenya into two, is active and more often has experienced minor earth tremors that geologists consider as largely inconsequential.

On 5th December 2005, one child died and four people were severely injured at Kalemie, Katanga Province of the Democratic Republic of Congo, following an earthquake measuring 6.8 on the Richter Scale at Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania. The tremor was also felt in Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi. Panic gripped Nairobi and other major towns as high rise buildings were evacuated and inspectors assessed them for possible cracks and damages.