Powerful and long-lasting tremors in the early hours of January 23 in southern Kazakhstan sparked widespread alarm and prompted thousands to take to their cars and flee the country’s largest city, Almaty, for safety.
The epicenter of the magnitude 7.1 earthquake was registered in a sparsely inhabited area of Xinjiang, a region in northwestern China, some 262 kilometers from Almaty. The AP cited Chinese officials as saying three people were killed.
The impact was far feebler in Almaty, but still enough to cause minor damage to some buildings. People reported sensing tremors as far away as Astana.
Fully 67 people had to be given medical treatment, mainly for minor injuries, officials said. At least thee people reportedly jumped out of second- and third-story windows in a panic.
Officials said in the immediate aftermath that emergency workers had been put on high alert and that rescue units were poised to intervene if needed.
Large numbers of spooked Almaty residents braved the post-midnight temperatures of minus nine degrees Celsius on the street out of concern of repeat shocks. The reaction is testament to perceptions of the scale of the tremors and possibly, to some extent, evolving attitudes toward tolerance for risk. Weaker quakes in the past have typically elicited some mild surprise and a shrug of the shoulders from the bulk of Almaty’s citizenry.
Many car-owners rushed to flee the city. That caused lengthy traffic jams and long lines at gas stations.
About 12,000 people spent the night in specially organized local government gathering points at schools, kindergartens and universities. The first major quake was succeeded by a series of weaker aftershocks throughout the night.
Mischief-makers did their bit. Bogus claims circulated on messaging apps about seismologists supposedly warning of an even bigger earthquake on the morning of January 23.
Anxieties about the deadly potential of these kinds of natural phenomena have been particularly high across Central Asia since an earthquake on the Turkish-Syrian border in February 2023 that claimed more than 50,000 lives.
As aftershocks diminished in power, the authorities sought to strike a reassuring note.
The director of the National Scientific Center for Seismological Observations and Research, Daulet Sarsenbayev, told reporters that he could state with “100 percent confidence” that there would be no more strong earthquakes in Almaty.
Public officials are also having to contend with the input of cranks like Alexander Savelyev, a science-fiction writer who earlier this month chided seismologists for disregarding his predictions of an imminent earthquake in mid-January, a revelation he suggested had arrived to him in a psychotropic mushroom-induced haze. Despite the less-than-impeccable credentials possessed by Savelyev, who is popularly known as “the mushroom blogger,” his theories are widely entertained and his likely coincidental guess on this occasion will only buttress the value of his stock.
Hypothesizing the possibility of earthquakes in and around Almaty is hardly rocket science, though. The city is located in a zone of increased seismic hazard. In 1887, powerful tremors wiped out what was then called Verny from the face of the earth and claimed hundreds of lives. Another earthquake in 1911, not far from where Almaty stands, proved no less destructive and fatal.
Almaz Kumenov is an Almaty-based journalist.