The U.S. Geological Survey said the magnitude-6.2 quake was centered 45 miles (75 kilometers) southeast of Kendari, a town on Sulawesi island, at a depth of just 6 miles (9 kilometers). It was followed by three strong aftershocks.
Andre Wijaya, a geological official in Kendari, said the earth shook violently beneath his feet.
"Women and children were screaming as they ran from their homes and into nearby fields," said Lt. Laode Surachman, a police officer in Kendari, adding that hotels emptied out and patients in a hospital were evacuated to safety. "Even officers taking part in morning roll call scattered and fled."
Indonesia straddles a series of fault lines that make the vast island nation prone to volcanic and seismic activity.
A giant quake off the country on Dec. 26, 2004, triggered a tsunami in the Indian Ocean that killed 230,000 people, half of them in Indonesia's westernmost province of Aceh.