Tsunami Claims 20 Lives in Solomon Islands

HONIARA, Solomon Islands, April 2, 2007 (ENS) - At least 20 people are dead in the Solomon Islands today after a giant earthquake of magnitude 8.1 shook the western part of the Pacific island chain this morning, triggering a tsunami.

The quake took place at 7:39 am Solomon Islands time, causing major damage to the resort town of Gizo, in the New Georgia Islands archipelago.


Map of the Solomon Islands (Photo courtesy CIA World Factbook)
The first quake was immediately followed by two more of magnitudes 6.7 and 6.4, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The quakes were measured at a depth of 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) at a distance of 345 kilometers (215 miles) west northwest of the Solomon Islands capital of Honiara on the island of Guadalcanal.

The Solomon Islands Red Cross reports that around 2,000 people, or 10 percent of the population, in the provincial capital of Gizo, are now homeless, while some 500 houses may have been damaged or destroyed. Preliminary reports from other islands suggest similar or worse levels of damage.

The quakes sent waves 10 feet high crashing into Gizo shops and homes, and knocked out power and some communications. Property damage is estimated in the millions of dollars, and the death toll is expected to rise.

In low-lying Gizo town boats were washed into the streets by the tsunami this morning. (Photo courtesy Tutuvatu)
There are reports that Gizo hospital, Gizo church and Gizo Hotel have suffered damage. The Gizo Hotel reports that all residents and guests have moved to higher ground.

The Provincial Disaster Office in Choisel Province evacuated people from coastal areas when the tsunami warning was issued.

Sasamunga Hospital in Choiseul province was partly flooded. Oxfam says large parts of southwest Choiseul province likely have been affected. 15 houses were reportedly swept away in Simbo.

"The warning was the earth tremors," Premier of the Solomonís Western Province Alex Lokopio told New Zealand National Radio. "It shook us very, very strongly and we were frightened, and all of a sudden, the sea was rising up."

The Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation's correspondent in Gizo says residents are sheltering in hills around the island's main town, for fear of another tsunami.

Solomons National Disaster Management Office spokesman Julian Makaa said many villages in the countryís remote Western province report people being drowned as waves swept over their homes.

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare said today he was "saddened" by the destruction and loss of life caused by the earthquake and tsunami.

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare (Photo courtesy Commonwealth of Nations)
Prime Minister Sogavare assured victims of the affected provinces that his government through the National Disaster Council and other agencies is fully committed to assist victims of the disaster.

"Most survivors took to the hills and have not returned," says the International Federation of Red Cross regional disaster management coordinator for the Pacific, Martin Blackgrove, who is based in Suva, Fiji.

"Roads are inaccessible and there has been heavy damage to infrastructure, including phones and electricity," he said "Many people will be sleeping outdoors tonight and are not expected to return to their homes until Tuesday. That makes it hard to get accurate figures on the number of people who may be missing."

The Solomon Islands Red Cross says fresh water is in short supply in some areas, while temporary, localized food shortages have been reported. Some of the affected areas are so isolated they can only be reached by boat.

The Natural Disaster Management Office, NDMO, in Western and Choiseul Provinces organized an assessment mission today, including representatives of the NDMO, government ministries, the police department, the Red Cross, NZ Aid and the UN Development Programme.

The Red Cross will carry out an initial distribution of first aid kits in Gizo town and has dispatched a boat containing tents.


The dive resort town of Gizo before today's tsunami (Photo courtesy Dive Gizo)
The government of the Solomon Islands is expected to make a request for international assistance, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The results of the NDMO assessment are expected to clarify needs.

Australia will contribute up to A$2 million to help the Solomon Islands recover from today's earthquake and tsunami, the Australia Broadcasting Corporation said this morning.

Aircraft from the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands, RAMSI, currently are assessing the damage in the area and distributing blankets and clean water.

Prime Minister John Howard says Australia is helping the Solomon Islands in any way it can, and Foreign Minister Alexander Downer will announce an aid package shortly.

"All the resources of RAMSI are being made available, and they're very extensive, to help the local people," Howard said today.


A member of the Australian Navy, left, helps a Solomon Islands' police officer load relief supplies. (Photo courtesy Tutuvatu)
"We'll do all we possibly can both through RAMSI and additionally to help the people of the Solomon Islands."

On Australia's east coast, the beaches were closed along the Queensland coast and as far south as Sydney's Bondi beach, the prime minister said, but the tsunami did not reach Australia.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Honolulu issued a tsunami warning for much of the Pacific, including Australia, Papua New Guinea, and Indonesia. There have been reports of damage in Papua New Guinea to the west of the Solomons but no loss of life.

A tsunami watch was issued for New Zealand, the Philippines, American Samoa, Guam and Fiji.

At first, Hawaii was put under a tsunami advisory, but by Sunday evening Hawaii time, the advisory was lifted.

Consisting of nearly one thousand islands, the Solomons are struck by frequent earthquakes. The British Commonwealth Realm is characterized by poverty and political instability.