Govt approves $19m quake relief

The cabinet yesterday approved an initial budget of Bt500 million (S$19 million) for relief to quake-devastated areas in the North, while Chiang Rai province announced seven districts as disaster zones even as experts criticised the poor rescue operations, calling for equipment upgrades to deal with future quakes.

Deputy Prime Minister Plodprasob Suraswadi will chair an eight-member committee to provide assistance to victims of the 6.3-magnitude quake, which jolted the Northern region on Monday evening, according to the government's Deputy Spokeswoman Sunisa Lertpakawat.

The committee will map out plans and measures for quick relief and assistance within 15 days, she said.

The strongest quake in Thailand since 1935 killed one person and injured 23 as well as damaging a lot of buildings and transport facilities in the region. But many dams in the North are safe, as they were mostly designed to withstand magnitude 7 quakes, according to the Department of Irrigation.

Thailand has rarely experienced a major earthquake. The strongest previous one was nearly 80 years ago when the northern province of Nan was rocked by a magnitude-6.5 earthquake.

Monday's event, which struck at a shallow depth of just 7.4 kilometres, had its epicentre in the remote Phan district of Chiang Rai province. Geologists and experts never expected a strong quake to occur at the Phayao fault line, a minor branch of the Mae Chan fault line, according to Chulalongkorn University's geologist Panya Jarusiri.

"It's relatively new for us. We have to pay more attention to such minor fault lines," he said, noting that the Northern area would be, from now on, under close surveillance. The North is exposed to the risk of quakes, as it lies over as many as eight active fault lines, he said.

Another quake expert, Paiboon Nualnil, suggested that the authorities upgrade equipment to have the ability to measure "foreshocks". Thailand so far has installed quake-monitoring instruments in 40 locations throughout the country but most of them are far away from the fault lines, he said.

The experts suggested moving the equipment immediately to measure and collect aftershock data in order to have information for further study.

It is impossible to predict earthquakes, but efficient equipment would be able to detect foreshocks with mild magnitude of 1-3 before the main shock and aftershocks, Paiboon said.

"I believe there were foreshocks of 1-3 magnitude before the main shock occurred in Chiang Rai this time, but we don't have tools to detect such signals," he said. "If we had such information, we would have the time to prepare for the quake."

All concerned agencies failed to handle the situation, he said. He added that people panicked as they lacked preparedness and information about the event because authorities had never encountered any strong quake in the country.

"We have never had real training and practice for people to prepare for this kind of natural disaster," he said.