5/21/2003 Algeria Earthquake

Updated 5/24/2003

The 6.7 Magniture earthquake struck at 18:44 GMT 5/21/03. This was 7:44 pm local time. The epicenter was in Bourmedes, 45 miles east of Algiers in Northern Algeria. Scores of buildings collapsed in the first seconds of the quake. Over 1,875 have died, over 1.000 in Bourmedes and over 7,000 injured. Thousands more camp out in the streets because their homes have been destroyed or out of fear of aftershocks. Accoridng to the BBC, "In Reghaia, 35km (22 miles) east of Algiers, authorities requisitioned the municipal stadium, setting up tents for families whose houses were destroyed in the earthquake. " There have indeed been many strong aftershocks. Rescuers have been desperately digging in the rubble with bulldozers and their bare hands desperately trying to find people who are still alive. After the first two days there is little hope of finding more survivors. Hospitals are totally overwhelmed with thousands of people coming in with serious injuries. Communications are difficult with phone lines down. Many roads have been damaged, huge traffic jams make access to the area difficult. Remote villages are especially cut off with roads cracked and blocked with debris. Large crowds of relatives are pouring into the area, adding to the congestion. Medical supplies are in short supply.

Algeria has requested international aid to cope with the massive damage. France has sent aid, including rescue equipment and rescue dogs. The dogs have been trained to find people under debris. Other countries are also contributing. French President, Jacques Chirac stressed historic ties between France, the former colonial power, and Algeria, in sending aid. UNICEF, the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and others are contributing to the effort.

Two days after the quake, crowds turned their grief and anger towards the Algerian President when he toured the disaster area. Boos and stone throwing were reported. Local Newspapers also attack the lack of preparations and response to a quake in this very seismically active region. They accuse the government of an inadequate response and of allowing substandard construction of the buildings that collapsed. The government has been accused of slow response and poor co-ordination of the rescue efforts. Foreign aid workers are finding that government security concerns are also slowing them down. They are experiencing tight checks at the border. Conflicts between government security forces and Islamic militants complicate the issue. Road crews are working with armed escorts and the government is reluctant to send rescuers into areas where they might be caught up in the conflict.

This quake was casued by the collision between the African Tectonic Plate, which is moving northward into Europe. The Northern Algerian area has been hit repeatedly by severe quakes. The USGS describes this process as follows: "The earthquake occurred in the boundary region between the Eurasian plate and the African plate. Along this section of the plate boundary, the African plate is moving northwestward against the Eurasian plate with a velocity of about 6 mm per year. The relative plate motions create a compressional tectonic environment, in which earthquakes occur by thrust-faulting and strike-slip faulting. Analysis of seismic waves generated by this earthquake shows that it occurred as the result of thrust-faulting. Algeria has experienced many destructive earthquakes. On October 10, 1980, the city of El Asnam (formerly Orleansville and today Ech-Cheliff) was severely damaged by a magnitude 7.1 earthquake that killed at least 5000 people. The site of El Asnam is situated approximately 220 km to the west of the recent earthquake. The same city, as Orleansville, had been heavily damaged on September 9, 1954, by a magnitude 6.7 earthquake that killed over 1000 people. On October 29, 1989, a magnitude 5.9 earthquake struck about 110 km to the west of the recent earthquake and killed at least 30 people."

(See the Plate Tectonics page for more information on these processes.)

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