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Rare Australia earthquake triggers panic in Melbourne
People gather near a damaged building in the popular shopping Chapel Street in Melbourne after a 5.8-magnitude earthquake. - AFP
People gather near a damaged building in the popular shopping Chapel Street in Melbourne after a 5.8-magnitude earthquake. - AFP

MELBOURNE: A rare quake rattled southeastern Australia on Wednesday, shaking buildings, knocking down walls and sending panicked Melbourne residents running into the streets. The shallow 5.9 magnitude tremor hit east of the country's second-largest city at the start of the working day and was one of the largest to hit the country in decades.

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

Zume Phim, 33, owner of Melbourne's Oppen cafe, said he rushed onto the street as the tremor hit. "The whole building was shaking. All the windows, the glass, was shaking -- like a wave of shaking," he said. "I have never experienced that before. It was a little bit scary."

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

Bricks and rubble surrounded a burger restaurant and large sheets of metal hung off the restaurant awning.

"We were fortunate that nobody was in the restaurant at the time," the restaurant said in a Facebook post.

Victoria's State Emergency Service said it had received 100 calls for assistance "largely related to minor structural damage to chimneys and facades on buildings."

"It was quite violent but everyone was kind of in shock," Melbourne cafe worker Parker Mayo, 30, said. Sizable earthquakes are unusual in Australia.

At magnitude 5.9 and a depth of 10 kilometres, this was "the biggest event in southeast Australia for a long time" Mike Sandiford, a geologist at the University of Melbourne said. "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 southeast Australia, the last was Thorpdale in 2012" he said. "This is significantly bigger."

Geoscience Australia reported the initial quake was followed by a series of six smaller ones, ranging from magnitude 2.5 to 4.1.

Sandiford said Australians should expect "many hundreds of aftershocks, most below human sensitivity threshold, but probably a dozen or more that will be felt at least nearby". The quake "would have caused many billions of dollars in damage had it been under Melbourne", he added.

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.

"We don't have earthquakes that I am aware of -- none of the locals I spoke to this morning had that experience with earthquakes here before -- so it is one right out of left field."

Emergency services said they had received calls for help as far away as Dubbo, about 700 kilometres from the quake epicentre, with fire and rescue crews 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 may be complicated by the ongoing pandemic lockdown and ongoing protests.

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

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