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- Thousands spend sleepless night and pour out into the open after earthquake alert in Assam

Jorhat, Dec. 12: When the earth aligns with the sun, moon and two or more planets almost in a straight line, a quake will strike Upper Assam ' said the prediction.

The celestial phenomenon did occur. At 4.30 this morning, power went off, too, as ordained.

In the gloom-enveloped chill, people came out of their homes to gather in open spaces, waiting for the ground beneath their feet to start convulsing, only their faces ' full of foreboding ' showing from behind thick winter clothes.

'Me, my parents and my family are out in the open since four in the morning. How can anyone take the risk, specially after the district administration made an announcement to be ready for the earthquake' said Balraj Somani, a Jorhat businessman, as he huddled near a fire lit by the roadside.

Thousands like him gathered at the Jorhat stadium and the adjacent Courtfields, many praying with hands folded.

Jorhat and Sivasagar towns, sandwiched in the sliver of land between Arunachal Pradesh on one side and Nagaland on the other, spent the entire morning out in the open, unnerved by a forecast made by four geologists of Madras University earlier this month.

Although the warning was issued in five districts, Jorhat and Sivasagar panicked because of their proximity to the epicentre (26.91 degrees north latitude and 94.49 degrees east longitude) of the predicted quake.

At an international conference on natural hazards in Hyderabad, N. Venkatanathan, of the department of applied geology of the university, said planetary configurations suggest the possibility of an earthquake measuring 5 to 6 on the Richter scale in Upper Assam at 6 am.

The Assam government wrote a letter last week to the authorities of Upper Assam districts, informing them of the prediction.

It said that 'though earthquakes of intensity of four to five on the Richter scale have kept occurring frequently in Assam, alert all concerned and remain ready to face any situation'.

Yesterday, the district authorities issued a warning using public address systems.

Word was passed around, asking townspeople to wake up early so that they were not caught sleeping during the quake.

Many did not sleep at all. Their fear deepened when power supply was cut around 4.30 am, as the administration had announced earlier.

'Till this morning I did not believe a word about it. But after the power went dead, I was bound to believe that the quake is coming any time. I dashed out of bed,' said Arup Chakraborty, a young medical representative and late riser.

In Sivasagar, people started collecting at Boarding field, a large open area, from early this morning. Most of the families slept last night with locking their doors.

'After the (government) announcement last evening, many of our neighbours decided to keep the main doors unlocked so we could run out fast if the quake struck,' said Jyoti Chaliha, a professor of Sivasagar College.

With fingers pointing towards the authorities for spreading panic, a district administration official said: 'We cannot take any chances after a government order.'

Such was the extent of the panic that some had even decided to hoard food for fear of starvation in the aftermath of the quake. Residents of an area that is prone to quakes, they carry memories of previous disasters.

'I purchased several kg of fruits and mineral water bottles. No one knows how long the quake will continue. If I survive, I will have to eat something,' said Biren Bharali, an employee of a government office here.

Anima Dutta, a retired teacher, had seen the Great Assam earthquake of 1950, which struck on Independence Day, measuring 8.6 on the Richter scale. Rated as the sixth most devastating earthquake of the 20th century, it killed over 1,500 people and unleashed thousands of aftershocks.

'I know how it feels when there is a quake. And after the government made the announcement, I did not take a chance,' Dutta said.

She packed her valuables last evening, warned her two sons to wake up not later than 3 am and be ready to ferry things out of the house.

Neither Upper Assam, nor the more than half a dozen locations the Madras University group predicted would experience quakes, there were reports of any.

Venkatanathan could not be contacted, but one of his colleagues said the prediction was that a quake could occur in the region within three days before or after December 12. He said there was a tremor in the region on Thursday another yesterday.

A scientist at the regional research laboratory here said it is almost impossible to predict an earthquake with precision. 'It was an unnecessary panic,' he said, pleading anonymity.

'Had the earthquake struck... what then' asked an administration official.

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