MELBOURNE, Australia — A magnitude 5.9 earthquake hit southeast Australia on Wednesday morning, damaging buildings and forcing hospitals to evacuate staff members and patients. It was an unusually large quake in a country less susceptible to major temblors than neighboring countries.
There were no immediate reports of serious injuries or deaths, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said at a news conference from New York, where he was attending the U.N. General Assembly.
It was the largest onshore earthquake in the state of Victoria in recorded history, according to Adam Pascale, chief scientist at the Seismology Research Center. And it was the largest land earthquake in the country since 2016, when a 6.1-magnitude temblor hit the Northern Territory, according to Geoscience Australia.
The quake on Wednesday collapsed the walls of buildings in Melbourne, Australia’s second-largest city and the capital of Victoria. It forced residents to flee apartments, shattered windows, left cracks in roads and led to power outages.
Photos and videos shared widely on social media show a damaged building in Melbourne, with bricks spewed across the street.
The quake, which hit around 9:15 a.m., was felt as far away as South Australia, where a hospital evacuated staff members and patients; in New South Wales, where businesses also evacuated; and in the Australian Capital Territory and Tasmania.
Two smaller quakes were recorded at 9:30 a.m. and 9:54 a.m., the geosciences agency said. The epicenter was in Mansfield, a regional town in the state of Victoria about 81 miles from Melbourne, the state capital.
Small earthquakes are not unusual in Australia, said Chris Elders, a structural geology expert at Curtin University, “but what is very unusual is to have such a large earthquake and for it to occur close to a center of population so that it’s very widely felt.”
The quake in 2016 was far from a city center and likely did not register with many Australians, said Professor Elders.
Australia sits in the middle of a tectonic plate, making it less susceptible to major earthquakes than countries on fault lines like New Zealand and Indonesia.
The quake hit Wednesday as protests in Melbourne against Covid lockdowns and mandatory vaccinations for the construction industry continued for a third straight day. The demonstrations have occasionally turned violent.
But the quake did little to deter construction workers from protesting in Victoria. In anti-vaccination group chats on Telegram, the messaging app, some protesters speculated that the authorities had orchestrated the quake to deter them.
“We need to be sure whether it is an actual natural occurrence,” said one user.
Because of the rarity of earthquakes in the country, some Australians said they had not realized what was happening at first, chalking it up to a truck driving past their house or their imagination.
“At first I thought it was a helicopter, because helicopters have been circling around my house for the past couple of days because of the protests in the city,” said Olivia Nemtsas, 25, who lives in Melbourne. “Everything in the house was shaking. I was leaning against the bench, and that was shaking, too,” she added.
Laurie Blampied, 66, who manages a ski resort near the epicenter of the quake, said he was surprised by the quake’s duration and strength. He fled the building to be safe. The ski resort also shut down to allow inspections for damage, before resuming operations after about an hour, Mr. Blampied said.
In 1997, a 6.2-magnitude quake hit Western Australia. In 1989, an earthquake of 5.5 magnitude killed at least 11 people and injured more than 120 in Newcastle, a city about 75 miles north of Sydney. The damage was estimated at $1 billion.
“It can be a very, very disturbing event for an earthquake of this nature,” Mr. Morrison said from the United States. “They are very rare events in Australia, and I’m sure as a result people would have been quite distressed or disturbed by that.”
Meghan Dansie contributed reporting.