MANILA, Philippines - Thousands of people on the country's eastern coast returned to their homes on Saturday after fleeing inland when a magnitude 7.7 earthquake off Samar triggered a tsunami warning.
Most of the residents had fled by the time waves of up to half a meter (20 inches) hit coastal areas within an hour of the temblor striking offshore late Friday, National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) chief Benito Ramos said.
"They feared they would be swamped by waves as large as those in the Japan tsunami, so it was not difficult to convince them to leave," he said. In March, 2011, almost 20,000 people died when a tsunami struck the northern coast of Japan after an 8.9 quake.
"Most of them returned home after the tsunami alert was lifted just after midnight, although about 50 families remained at evacuation centers, fearing a tsunami could still strike."
The quake also triggered a landslide that killed a woman and injured her grandchild in Cagayan de Oro City, Ramos said.
The tremor was felt not only in Eastern Samar, but in other parts of the Visayas and some areas in Southern Luzon and Mindanao.
The United States Geological Survey placed the earthquake 198 kilometers east southeast of Borongan, Samar.
The temblor was felt at intensity 7 in Giuan, Oras, Sulat, Borongan City in Eastern Samar; and Tacloban City, Leyte; intensity 6 in Siargao, Surigao del Norte; Palo, Leyte; and Saint Bernard, Southern Leyte; intensity 5 in Mati City, Compostela, Legaspi City, Iloilo City, Bislig City, Iligan City, Davao City, Cateel in Davao Oriental, and Roxas City, Capiz; intensity 4 in Butuan City, Catbalogan City, Cagayan De Oro City, Dipolog City, Manukan in Zamboanga Del Norte, Tagum in Davao Del Norte, Digos City, Dumaguete City, and Bacolod City; intensity 3 in Cotabato City, Mambajao, Camiguin, and General Santos City, Kidapawan City, Jaro in Iloilo, and Sindanga, Zamboanga Del Norte; and intensity 2 in Marawi City, Sipalay City, Hinigaran, La Carlota, La Granja, Negros Occidental, and Cebu City.
Authorities wasted no time warning villages in Northern Samar, Eastern Samar, Leyte, Southern Leyte, Surigao Del Norte, and Surigao del Sur facing the Pacific Ocean to evacuate to higher grounds.
The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) raised the tsunami alert to 3, the highest level, at around 9 p.m.
The alert was lifted at 12:10 a.m. Saturday.
The NDRRMC said the tsunami did not reach life-threatening heights.
The National Mapping and Resource Information Authority (NAMRIA) reported a tsunami in Surigao City with initial heights of 16 centimeters and 19 centimeters at 10:48 p.m.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC) in Hawaii also reported a three centimeter tsunami recorded by tide gauges in Legazpi City at 9:43 p.m. and Davao City at 9:50 p.m.
Waves less than half-meter high were observed in Pilar, Surigao del Norte and in Siargao Island about 10 minutes after the quake.
The NDRRMC said the only earthquake-related fatality was Elenita Ubalde, who was killed when a landslide triggered by the temblor buried her house in Dacudao Compound, Upper Kolambong, Barangay Lapasan, Cagayan de Oro.
Ubalde's five-year-old grandson, Adrian Rosales, was injured in the landslide.
Ramos said a house caught fire in Bunawan, Agusan del Norte, after a kerosene lamp fell during the tremor.
In Eastern Samar, three bridges, a gymnasium, and several houses sustained cracks but no other major damage was reported.
Cracks in the road were also reported in St. Bernard, Southern Leyte, but all roads and bridges in the areas remained passable.
In Surigao City, close to 200,000 residents including farm animals ran onto the city streets during the quake.
Guests of different hotels and tourists inns also left in a hurry.
Regional Director Blanche T. Gobenciong of the Office of Civil Defense said transformers of electric posts in Pilar town, Siargao, exploded, cutting power to the area.
"The effect of the earthquake was very minimal and I'm glad to see the immediate response of our officials and even the people. They evacuated even before the tsunami warning was sounded," said Ramos.
Power was restored in most areas, except in Siargao, Surigao del Norte, and Eastern Samar.
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 km from the quake's epicenter, 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 café 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 nor 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.
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 Robredillo.
Guiuan Mayor Annaliza Kwan, told DZMM radio in Manila in a telephone interview that between 8,000 and 9,000 of the town's 44,000 residents fled the tsunami.
In Leyte, Tacloban City Mayor Alfred Romualdez reported between 3,000 and 4,000 people were evacuated, but damage was limited to broken glass at a shopping mall.
Almost 12 hours after quake, some 150 aftershocks followed, the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) said.
Phivolcs Director Dr. Renato Solidum said the temblor was caused by the movement of tectonic plates, particularly along the Philippine Trench.
As of 8 a.m. Saturday, 153 aftershocks have been recorded by Phivolcs, but Soriano noted that not all of these were felt.
The strongest aftershock was magnitude 6.8 at 9:27 p.m. Friday in Surigao del Sur.
"Unlike the 6.9-magnitude earthquake in Negros Occidental last February 6 that originated from populated areas, the tremor last Friday was off shore. Lesser aftershocks will be felt because the epicenter is kilometers away from the populated areas," Soriano said.
Malacañang on Saturday commended national and local government units (LGUs) for the quick response during the earthquake.
Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said the quick response lessened threats to the residents in coastal areas affected by the tsunami.
"We observed protocols. The protocols were followed by the people who should have been alerted [had been alerted]," Valte said.
She said President Benigno S. Aquino III instructed Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin to monitor the tsunami and ensure that evacuation in the affected areas was peaceful and orderly. -with additional reports from Ellalyn B. De Vera, Madel R. Sabater, Mike Crismundo, Aaron Recuenco, Raymund Antonio and AFP