More than 300 people are feared to have been killed and thousands more have been injured and left homeless in one of the worst earthquakes to hit Pakistan in years. With a magnitude of 7.7, the powerful earthquake struck the remote district of Awaran in southwestern Pakistan's Balochistan province Tuesday. Balochistan is Pakistan's largest province but is also the least populated and most impoverished. Although local officials have said they were sending doctors, food and 1,000 tents for people affected, the remoteness of the area and lack of infrastructure have hampered relief efforts so far.
Houses made mostly of mud and handmade bricks had collapsed, walls and roofs caved in leaving thousands homeless in the region. Officials have said some areas appeared to be badly damaged but it is still hard to assess the impact immediately due to the remoteness of the affected locations.
Journalist Mohammad Shabir said survivors have begun digging rows of graves and picking through the debris. "As far as the human eye can see, all the houses here have been flattened," Shabir said.
"Two hundred and eighty-five bodies have so far been recovered in the Awaran district," said Abdul Rasheed Gogazai, the deputy commissioner of Awaran, the worst affected town. "And 42 bodies were found in the neighboring Kech district. We have started to bury the dead." Awaran district has about 300,000 residents spread out over 11,197 sq. miles.
According to the spokesman of the government's National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), Kamran Zia, the death toll stood at 259 by early Wednesday evening but is steadily rising.
The deadly and powerful earthquake, with its epicenter 69 km from Awaran, struck at 4:29 PM in Pakistan at a 23 kilometers. According to US Geological Survey, five aftershocks measuring between 4.7 and 5.9 were recorded after the quake with tremors felt in Karachi, Hyderabad, Larkana and other towns and cities of Sindh province. Tremors were also felt as far as New Delhi and some parts of north India as well.
The earth also moved with enough to create a small island in the nearby waters of the Indian Ocean, just off the Pakistan's Gwadar coastline. Zahir Rafi, head of the Geological Survey of Pakistan, said these masses are sometimes created due to the movement of gases locked in the earth under the sea, pushing earth and mud up to the surface. "When such a strong earthquake builds pressure, there is the likelihood of such islands emerging," said Rafi. "That big shock beneath the earth causes a lot of disturbance."
Scientists will have to get samples of the material to determine what the island is made of and how permanent it is. Depending on its makeup, these types of islands can remain for a long time or eventually subside into the ocean. Navy geologist Mohammed Danish said the mass was about 60 feet high, 100 feet long and 250 feet wide and warned residents not to try to visit the island due to "gasses [that] are still emitting."
Dozens of people have already visited the island, said Tufail Balouch, deputy commissioner of Gwadar district, who also traveled to the island by boat himself earlier today. Balouch said dead fish were floating on the water's surface and the water bubbled along the edges of the island in what appeared to be gas discharging from under the surface. He also added that while local residents were visiting the island and taking stones as souvenirs, the area smelled of gas and caught fire when people lit cigarettes.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif ordered officials to expedite relief efforts for victims of Pakistan's deadliest earthquake since 2005 when approximately 70,000 people died in the quake that struck the northwestern mountains. Maj. Gen. Muhammad Saeed Aleem said his priority is to provide shelter to the homeless and that supplies of medicine, blankets and water were on the way. "It was a big quake, and the damage is extensive," Aleem said.
In addition to being prone to earthquakes and having dealt with a recent crippling drought, Balochistan has been long troubled by many conflicts including a nationalist insurgency and multiple suicide bombings this year by sectarian militant groups. The region was also badly hit by devastating floods that swept Pakistan in 2010 where about 2,000 people died.
Generally ill-prepared to deal with natural disasters, the provincial government is seriously lacking in medical facilities to treat injured people. Doctors were treating people, according to the AP, but due to a severe scarcity of staff and medicine, they were mostly seen comforting residents. "We are seriously lacking medical facilities, and there is no space to treat injured people in the local hospitals," said Jan Muhammad Buledi, a provincial spokesman. "We need more tents, more medicine and more food."
The Pakistani military, who were the first to respond, rushed almost 1,000 troops to the area overnight, sending helicopters and a convoy of 60 army trucks carrying supplied for those affected by the devastating earthquake.
Pakistan forces also evacuated 174 people from multiple villages around Awaran to the district hospital but voiced fears that 46,000 people living in the wider region could now be in need of shelter, assistance and aid.
Pakistani soldiers prepared tents for the survivors in some of the sparsely populated villages surrounding the town of Ziarat that were worst-hit by the tremors.
The death toll, however, is steadily rising as emergency relief workers, soldiers and survivors continue to search for survivors and bodies in the rubble.
More than 300,000 people have been affected by the quake over a total of six districts including Awaran, Kech, Gwadar, Panjgur, Chaghi and Khuzdar. The earthquake also struck Pakistan at a time when the country was still mourning the deaths of more than 80 Christians in a suicide bomb attack on an Anglican church in the city of Peshawar on Sunday, one of Pakistan's worst attack on Christians that sparked country-wide protests.
Their simple houses destroyed, villagers dug through the rubble to retrieve what was left of their meager possessions and have used rags, old clothes, sheets and branches to build makeshift shelter to shelter their families from the dry temperatures nearing 100 degrees during the day and freezing nights in the open.