A rare earthquake shook southeastern Australia early Wednesday, shaking buildings, knocking down walls and sending panicky Melbourne residents running into the streets.
The shallow quake hit the east of the country’s second-largest city shortly after 9:00 a.m. local time (2300 GMT) and was felt hundreds of kilometers (miles) away.
The U.S. Geological Survey put the earthquake’s magnitude at 5.8, then revised it down to 5.9, and said it occurred at a depth of 10 kilometers (six miles).
With Melbourne beginning its eighth week of pandemic lockdown and preparing for a third straight day of violent anti-vaccine protests, most residents were home when the earthquake struck.
Zume Phim, 33, owner of Melbourne’s Oppen cafe, said he rushed outside when the quake struck.
“The whole building was shaking. All the windows, the glass, were shaking, like a wave of tremors,” he told AFP.
“I’ve never experienced that before. It was kind of scary.”
In a popular shopping area around Melbourne’s Chapel Street, masonry debris fell from buildings and covered roads.
Bricks and debris surrounded Betty’s Burgers and large sheets of metal hung from the restaurant’s awning.
“We were lucky that there was no one in the restaurant at the time,” the restaurant said in a Facebook post.
Large earthquakes are rare in Australia.
“It was quite violent, but everyone was a bit shocked,” Parker Mayo, 30, a Melbourne cafe worker, told AFP.
‘Very disturbing event’
At magnitude 5.9, this was “the largest event in southeastern Australia for a long time,” Mike Sandiford, a geologist at the University of Melbourne, told AFP.
“We had some very large ones of magnitude six at the end of the 19th century, although the precise magnitudes are not well known.”
An earthquake of this size is expected every “10-20 years in southeastern Australia, the last being Thorpdale in 2012,” he said. “This is significantly larger.”
Geoscience Australia reported that the initial earthquake was followed by a series of four smaller ones, ranging from a magnitude of 2.5 to 4.1.
Sandiford said Australians should expect “many hundreds of aftershocks, most below the threshold of human sensitivity, but probably a dozen or more that will feel at least close.”
The earthquake “would have caused many billions of dollars in damage had it been under Melbourne,” he added.
The mayor of Mansfield, near the epicenter of the earthquake, said there was no damage to the small town, but that it had taken residents by surprise.
“I was sitting at work at my desk and I needed to run outside. It took me a while to figure out what it was,” Mark Holcombe told public broadcaster ABC.
“We don’t have earthquakes that I know of, none of the locals I spoke to this morning had that experience with earthquakes here before, so it’s one of the best.”
Emergency services said they had received calls for help as far away as Dubbo, about 700 kilometers (435 miles) from the earthquake’s epicenter, with fire and rescue teams dispatched to help.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison, speaking from New York, said there were no initial reports of injuries.
“It can be a very, very disturbing event for an earthquake of this nature,” he said. “They are very rare events in Australia.”
Recovery efforts can be complicated by the ongoing pandemic lockdown and ongoing protests.
Hundreds of protesters in work boots and high-visibility jackets stormed central Melbourne again on Wednesday to protest vaccine requirements for construction workers.
On Tuesday, police fired pepper spray, foam baton cartridges and rubber grenades to disperse the crowd, warning that “further protests will not be tolerated.”