2 Oct 2009

Relief operation begins in tsunami-hit Pacific

7:06 am on 2 October 2009

A major relief operation has begun following a devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck in the South Pacific.

The combined death toll from powerful tsunamis which hit Samoa, American Samoa and Tonga following the 8.0 magnitude quake is at least 155.

About 20 villages on Samoa's southern coast are thought to have been destroyed after large waves battered the area on Wednesday.

The official death toll in Samoa stood at 115 on Thursday night, though the disaster management office expects the figure to rise as more bodies are recovered. Many of those killed were children and the elderly.

In neighbouring American Samoa 31 people are known to have perished.

In Tonga nine people are reported to have died on Niuatoputapu after three large waves destroyed most of the houses on the remote northern island.

Two New Zealanders are confirmed to have died in Samoa, while another is missing presumed dead. One of those killed has been named as Mary Ann White, of Raglan.

The disaster management office said there are no confirmed figures on the number of people left homeless in Samoa, but 32,000 have been affected in some way.

Rescuers continued to recover bodies from the sea or trapped under mud and rubble on Thursday. A number of Samoans remain unaccounted for and officials are also trying to establish how many tourists are in the disaster area.

Dr Ben Matalavea told Radio New Zealand medical facilities are under pressure and there is a shortage of doctors and nurses to treat the injured, many whom are expected to need surgery. In the capital Apia, hospital blood banks are running out of blood and overseas aid is desperately needed.

As of Thursday night, 19 New Zealanders are known to be injured in Samoa, while another 464 are safe and well, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The High Commission is checking on another 184 people.

MFAT said Samoa has been classed as high risk and is urging New Zealanders holidaying in the country to return home. It is also advising against all tourist and non-essential travel.

Tourist area destroyed

Most of the 20 Samoan 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, power lines and telecommunications have been badly damaged.

A Radio New Zealand reporter in Samoa said nothing more than a few trees remain standing at Lalomanu village, one of the worst-hit areas on the southeast coast of Upolu.

The premium tourist destination known for its pristine beaches now looks like a rubbish tip, with trees uprooted and cars overturned. The village is swarming with police and volunteer workers trying to clean up the mess. There are also reports of looting in the area.

Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele inspected the devastated areas on Thursday and said rebuilding the country is expected to take up to a year.

The Prime Minister told Radio New Zealand's Checkpoint that tents, clothes and bottled water have been distributed but are only very temporary relief measures for people who need to have their homes rebuilt.

Tuilaepa Sailele said the cost of repairing the roads alone will exceed $NZ96 million and Samoa would need a great deal of help from other countries.

Aid begins to arrive

New Zealand is among several countries offering Samoa aid. An Air Force Hercules carrying emergency supplies and medical staff has arrived and more military aircraft, helicopters and support crew are being sent.

The navy vessel Canterbury is being prepared and it is likely to be sent next week once the needs of the Samoan government are clear.

New Zealand police officers were to arrive in Samoa on Thursday to help set up communications and assist disaster victim identification. New Zealand's Red Cross is planning to send tarpaulins, water containers and first aid kits.

The New Zealand Government has made an immediate aid donation to Samoa and Tonga of $NZ1 million. The money will go to the islands' governments, the Red Cross and other non-government organisations.

Deputy Prime Minister Bill English said this represents only the beginning of funds and practical assistance New Zealand will deliver in coming months.

Prime Minister John Key, who has been in the United States on an official visit, is to visit Samoa at the weekend to assess the damage.

Australia has given $A2 million in aid, while the European Commission has announced about 150,000 euros in initial emergency aid.

Australia is sending charter aircraft with medical supplies, search and rescue teams and disaster recovery equipment, the ABC reports.

Devastation in American Samoa

Homeland Security director in American Samoa Mike Sala told Radio New Zealand's Morning Report on Thursday the devastation is widespread in the US territory.

"In the village of Pago Pago, all the stores, some homes, some businesses they've all been destroyed ... they've been washed out by the waves."

Mr Sala said the first priority is restoring a supply of clean drinking water and electricity in the eastern district.

At least 1700 people are believed to be homeless, 31 are confirmed dead and many more remain missing on Thursday.

Though temporary shelters have been established in the main island Tutuila, there are reports of looting in Pago Pago.

Governor Togiola Tulafono has appealed to the public to stay calm, saying all efforts are being made to provide emergency relief and medical supplies to those in need as well as to restore critical infrastructure.

The US Coast Guard has sent a plane to deliver aid and assess the damage.

Rescue effort under way in Tonga

A plane has arrived on the remote northern island group of Niuatoputapu on Thursday to treat and evacuate those injured in the tsunami.

The Tongan government is reporting that the island's main town is 95% demolished and other coastal villages have been severely affected.

The official death toll in Tonga stands at nine. Three people are missing and at least four have been critically injured. Disaster officials estimate up to 1600 people may be homeless.

Serious damage to the village of Hihifo has been reported. Buildings have also been damaged on Vava'u and Ha'appai island groups, though no loss of life has been reported.

A Tonga Defence Services vessel was expected to arrive in the area on Thursday night with medical staff and emergency supplies, and the government is seeking ship-based helicopters to help in the relief effort.