Samoan Tsunami Kills Up to 100, Wipes Out Villages
HONOLULU, Hawaii, September 30, 2009 (ENS) - A severe undersea earthquake with a magnitude of 8.3 hit close to the South Pacific island nation of Samoa and the U.S. Territory of American Samoa on Tuesday, triggering a tsunami that has wiped out villages and killed at least 47 people in the region, according to Samoan officials and media reports.

The Disaster Management Office in Samoa says 47 people are confirmed dead, but that number is expected to rise as bodies are recovered from the debris. Other officials put the death toll in Samoa at 63.

The Samoan capital of Apia was evacuated and thousands of people fled the coastal city. One panicked witness said the tsunami wave was 30 feet (nine meters) high.

Samoa's Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi says he is "shocked beyond belief" by the devastation. Speaking on a plane bound for Samoa returning from the UN General Assembly in New York, Tuilaepa described events as an "unimaginable tragedy."

Destruction in Samoa following the earthquake and tsunami (Photo by Cvrcak1)

Palanitina Toelupe, chief executive officer at the Samoan Ministry of Health, said people were injured by collapsing buildings and swept into the enormous waves.

"We have had people brought in that have been washed out and then washed back in, washed in and then washed back out," she told Radio New Zealand International. "We have a couple that were in a car with three children, they were washed out to the sea, then two children got killed and the couple and their eldest son were saved."

An Australian woman from the state of Tasmania has been killed in Samoa, according to the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

In addition, seven Australians were injured and are being treated in hospital, Foreign Affairs Minister Stephen Smith has confirmed.

Australia is sending a task-force of officials to Samoa in the next 24 hours, said Smith, who expressed concern about damage on the southeast coast of the island of Upoluare, where Australian tourists have been staying in a resort area.

"In Samoa, it's really been the southeast of the island that has been hit and that's unfortunately where most of the luxury and budget resorts are," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Reporter Jonah Tui Le Tufuga in Apia, told Pacific Islands Report at the University of Hawaii, "We received an early report island that the entire Manono village on Manono island has been totally gone under water early on this morning but luckily most of the residents made it up to higher ground before the actual tsunami hit."

Radio New Zealand International received a call from a New Zealand tourist, Graeme Ansell, who pleaded for help from a hill near the south coast of Samoa for a member of his party with a broken leg.

"We need some help around here. The whole village has been wiped out. We're around the place called Fao Fao Beach Fale but I guess the whole South east coast has been wiped out, just completely wiped out; you know there's not a building standing," Ansell said. "It was very quick and it's flattened."

The tsunami devastated homes in American Samoa (Photo by James Kneubuhl)

The Governor of American Samoa, Togiola Tulafono, who is in Honolulu, says at least 24 people died and a State of Emergency has been declared.

Witnesses in American Samoa said cars were washed out to sea and buildings were toppled in what the U.S. congressman for the territory, Eni Faleomavaega called a scene of "devastation."

Mase Akapo, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in American Samoa, told the Associated Press that at least 14 people were killed in four different villages on the main island of Tutuila.

The initial severe quake was followed by six aftershocks of at least 5.5 magnitude, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Smaller aftershocks continue to shake the region.

President Barack Obama has issued a major disaster declaration for the Territory of American Samoa, triggering the release of federal funds to help individuals and communities respond to the earthquake, tsunami and flooding.

In Honolulu, Governor Linda Lingle said Tuesday, "Our prayers go out to the people of American Samoa and Samoa, especially the families of those who lost their lives due to the devastating earthquake and tsunami. We acknowledge how difficult it must be for the Samoan community in Hawaii as they await news of their loved ones.

The State of Hawaii is assisting American Samoa Governor Togiola Tulafono in the recovery effort, providing medical assistance, communications support and engineers.

"While we were fortunate that a tsunami did not affect Hawaii, today's tsunami watch and the unusual ocean currents and sea level changes in Hawaii coastal waters are reminders of the importance for all Hawaii residents and businesses to be prepared and to heed the warning of civil defense and safety officials," said Governor Lingle.

Tsunami damage in American Samoa (Photo by James Kneubuhl)

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center initially issued a tsunami warning over a broad area of the Pacific, and a tsunami watch for Hawaii, but later canceled the warning and the watch.

The warning center said waves of over five feet above the average sea level had hit American Samoa. Eyewitnesses said the waves were much larger.

Waves at least 15 feet high destroyed the National Park of American Samoa Visitor Center in Pago Pago, the territory's capital, where park superintendent Mike Reynolds reported unconfirmed deaths.

The public information officer at American Samoa's office of Homeland Security, Betty Ah Son, told Radio New Zealand, "The Department of Public Works were able to clear most of the debris off the roads and people are able to travel around. we're trying to discourage them from just jumping in the car and looking around so we have more room for emergency vehicles. We have activated the Department of Education school bus system to transport people that have damaged their homes and need to get into shelters.

Ah Son says most of American Samoa's population is without electricity because the power infrastructure was devastated.

Several of the Earth's tectonic plates meet in South Pacific and violent geological activity happens frequently. A large earthquake with an under-ocean epicentre can trigger a tsunami with devastating effects.

In December 2004 an undersea earthquake off Indonesia's island of Sumatra set off a tsunami that killed more than 220,000 people around the Indian Ocean and devastated long stretches of coastline.

Copyright Environment News Service, ENS, 2009. All rights reserved.