Earthquake in Australia triggers panic

Rare tremor strikes Melbourne, forcing people from their homes

A rare earthquake struck Melbourne early on Wednesday, shaking buildings, knocking down walls and sending panicked residents running into the streets.

The shallow tremor hit east of Australia's second-largest city just after 9am local time and was felt hundreds of kilometres away.

The 5.9-magnitude earthquake struck at a depth of 10 kilometres, according to the US Geological Survey. Sizeable earthquakes are unusual in Australia.

With Melbourne beginning its eighth week of pandemic lockdown and bracing for a third straight day of violent anti-vaccine protests, most residents were at home when the quake struck.

"The whole building was shaking," Zume Phim, 33, owner of the city's Oppen cafe, told AFP. "All the windows, the glass, was shaking – like a wave of shaking."

In a popular shopping area around Melbourne's Chapel Street, masonry debris tumbled from buildings and littered the roads.

Bricks and rubble surrounded Betty's Burgers and large sheets of metal hung off the restaurant awning.

At magnitude 5.9, this was "the biggest event in south-east Australia for a long time", Mike Sandiford, a geologist at the University of Melbourne, told AFP.

"We had some very big ones at magnitude six in the late 1800s, though precise magnitudes are not well known."

A quake of this size is expected every "10-20 years in south-east Australia, the last was Thorpdale in 2012" he said. "This is significantly bigger."

The mayor of Mansfield, near the quake epicentre, said there was no damage in the small town but it had taken residents by surprise.

"I was sitting down at work at my desk and I needed to run outside. It took me a while to work out what it was," Mark Holcombe told public broadcaster ABC.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who is in 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 may be complicated by the lockdown and continuing protests.

Hundreds of demonstrators wearing work boots and hi-visibility jackets again rampaged through central Melbourne on Wednesday in protest against vaccine requirements for construction workers.

Police on Tuesday fired pepper spray, foam baton rounds and rubber ball grenades to disperse the crowd and warned further protests would "not be tolerated".

Updated: September 22nd 2021, 6:34 AM