1 Oct 2009

Quake triggers deadly tsunamis in Pacific

6:01 am on 1 October 2009

Dozens of people are confirmed dead and hundreds are homeless after a powerful earthquake triggered tsunamis in the South Pacific.

The devastating 8.0-magnitude quake occurred near the islands of Samoa and American Samoa at 6.48am on Wednesday (NZ time), reportedly generating waves of at least six metres high. Its epicentre was 190km southwest of the islands, at a depth of 33km.

The official death toll in Samoa, American Samoa and Tonga stood at 110 on Wednesday night, including 79 bodies at a hospital in the capital Apia. The figure is expected to rise as rescuers continue their search for bodies buried in sand, Radio New Zealand reports.

The Disaster Management Office said many of those killed were children and the elderly, and at least 142 people have been injured. Spokesperson Filomena Nelson said it appeared many victims ignored warnings to head to higher ground.

Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi said he is shocked beyond belief at the devastation, describing it as an unimaginable tragedy that has destroyed his own village.

Most of the 20 villages on the southern side of the main island of Upolu are thought to have been levelled, while popular beachside resorts have been wiped out. Roads and telecommunications have been badly damaged.

The New Zealand Government said on Wednesday one New Zealander has been reported dead by a family member in Samoa, while nine others are injured and in hospital in Apia.

However, Prime Minister John Key warned it is probable other New Zealanders may have died, given the south coast of Samoa is a popular destination and many people will be there for school holidays.

American Samoa, Tonga also hit

In neighbouring American Samoa, 24 people are confirmed to have died and at least 50 have been injured. United States President Barack Obama has declared a major disaster, enabling federal funding to made available to help victims.

Parts of the island are inaccessible due to damage to roads and bridges, and many buildings in the capital Pago Pago are reported to be destroyed.

In Tonga, the government has confirmed seven people are dead and three people are missing on the northern island of Niuatoputapu.

The island, which is closer to Samoa than it is to Tonga's main island Tongatapu, has been declared a national disaster area.

Medical staff and emergency supplies are being sent by boat as the airport's runway has been damaged, preventing planes from landing.

Serious damage has also been reported to the main village of Hihifo. The hospital has suffered major damage, telephone lines are cut, and homes and government buildings destroyed.

Help sought from NZ

A New Zealand Air Force Orion has arrived in Samoa to assess the damage and conduct sea searches along the southern coast.

An Air Force Hercules carrying medical staff and essential supplies is to leave for Samoa at midnight on Wednesday and the New Zealand Government said it is likely that more medics would follow on a commercial flight on Thursday.

Prime Minister John Key has contacted the Samoan Prime Minister to express New Zealand's condolences. He has offered assistance in the short term, and to help accommodate people and rebuild infrastructure in coming months.

The New Zealand Government is also working with French and Australian authorities to respond to Samoa's request for a helicopter as quickly as possible.

New Zealand's Red Cross is planning to send tarpaulins, water containers and first aid kits to Samoa.

The aid organisation's international operations manager, Andrew McKie, said there are 130 Samoan volunteers ready to help victims and hoped emergency supplies would be sent on Thursday.

The US Coast Guard is sending a C-130 plane to American Samoa to deliver aid and assess the damage.

Beachside resorts 'wiped out'

Red Cross worker Sati Young told Radio New Zealand that waves of at least six metres had wiped out beachside resorts on the south side of Upolu.

Mr Young said the tourist area of Lalomanu has been devastated by tsunami waves and locals reported seeing two main waves measuring up to 10 metres high.

Coconut trees still stand near the beach, but nothing is left of the beach houses which used to be there, he said. On the other side of the road, there is only the foundation of concrete houses. Debris hanged at the tops of trees where the water left it.

Samoa's Police Commissioner Lilomaiava Fou Taioalo said officers have been sent to badly affected areas to help villagers and search for missing people.

Upolu resident Theresa Falele Dussey said her house had been destroyed by the tsunami, as were houses and cars in a neighbouring village.

Ms Dussey was evacuated to Mt Vaea near Apia, along with hundreds of others, and said people there were simply thankful that they had survived.

New Zealanders in Samoa

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) has 76 New Zealanders registered as being in Samoa, though the actual number is likely to be higher.

The New Zealand Government is asking anyone with family in Samoa or people who are there to get in touch with MFAT so it can get a better idea of the number of New Zealanders who may be affected.

The High Commission was dealing with a number of displaced New Zealanders holidaying in Samoa who were evacuated on Wednesday.

New Zealand tourist Graeme Ansell was at Faofao Beach Fales on the southeast coast of Upolu and said the village he was in had been flattened. Mr Ansell said he managed to clamber up a nearby hill, while one of the people he was with suffered a broken leg.