Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Quake, Tsunami Kill at Least 34 in Pacific

Towering tsunami waves spawned by a powerful earthquake swept ashore on Samoa and American Samoa early Tuesday, flattening villages, killing at least 34 people and leaving dozens of workers missing at devastated National Park Service facilities.

Cars and people were swept out to sea by the fast-churning waters as survivors fled to high ground, where they remained huddled hours later. Hampered by power and communications outages, officials struggled to assess the casualties and damage.

A Samoan reporter says tsunami victims "are everywhere" in a hospital near a hard-hit area.

Associated Press reporter Keni Lesa said three or four villages on the popular tourist coast near the southern town of Lalomanu on Samoa's main island of Upolu had been "wiped out" by waves that roared ashore early Wednesday.

Lesa said he had visited the town's main hospital where "there are bodies everywhere," including at least one child.

Hampered by power and communications outages, officials struggled to assess the casualties and damage. The quake, with a magnitude between 8.0 and 8.3, struck around dawn about midway between Samoa and American Samoa.

The U.S. Geological Service, which estimated the magnitude at 8.0, said the quake struck 20 miles below the ocean floor, 120 miles from American Samoa and 125 miles from Samoa, with a 5.6-magnitude aftershock 20 minutes later.

A five-foot tsunami wave swept into Pago Pago, capital of American Samoa, shortly after the earthquake, sending sea water surging inland about 100 yards before receding, leaving some cars and debris stuck in mud. Electricity outages were reported, and telephone lines were jammed. The U.S. territory is about the size of Washington, D.C. and has a population of 65,000,

Reports differed, but tsunami waves are believed to have been as big as 20 feet high in places and reached as far as half a mile inland, reports CBS News correspondent Bill Whitaker.

Radio host John Rayner was down the coast from Pago Pago. "It was just absolute frantic. People were saying 'go high' or go pray somewhere," he told Whitaker. "Get away from ocean as quickly as you can."

Mike Reynolds, superintendent of the National Park of American Samoa, was quoted as saying four tsunami waves 15 to 20 feet high roared ashore soon afterward, reaching up to a mile inland. Holly Bundock, spokeswoman for the National Park Service's Pacific West Region in Oakland, Calif., spoke with him from his vantage point under a coconut tree uphill from Pago Pago Harbor; he reported that the park's visitor center and offices appeared to have been destroyed.


Bundock said Reynolds and another park service staffer had been able to locate only 20 percent of the park's 13 to 15 employees and 30 to 50 volunteers. The National Park of American Samoa is the only national park south of the equator, a scenic expanse of reefs, picturesque beaches, tropical forests and wildlife that include flying foxes and sea turtles.

Residents in both Samoa and American Samoa reported being shaken awake by the quake, which lasted two to three minutes, then fleeing uphill out of fear of a tsunami. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued a general alert from American Samoa to New Zealand, warning of the prospect of a "destructive" wave.

The ramifications of the tsunami could be felt thousands of miles away, with federal officials saying strong currents and dangerous waves were forecast from California to Washington state. No major flooding was expected, however.

Mase Akapo, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in American Samoa, said at least 14 people were killed in four different villages on the main island of Tutuila, while an unspecified number of people died neighboring Samoa, with reports of people and cars swept out to sea. Thousands of people were still huddled on high ground hours after the initial quake, which was followed by at three aftershocks of at least 5.6 magnitude.

An unspecified number of fatalities and injuries reported in the Samoan village of Talamoa. New Zealander Graeme Ansell said the beach village of Sau Sau Beach Fale was leveled.

"It was very quick. The whole village has been wiped out," Ansell told New Zealand's National Radio from a hill near Samoa's capital, Apia. "There's not a building standing. We've all clambered up hills, and one of our party has a broken leg. There will be people in a great lot of need 'round here."

Schools and businesses were closed, with the Samoan capital virtually deserted.

"Our house has been taken by the tsunami and we have lost everything," Teresa Sulili Dusi told National Radio, adding that "everything dropped on the floor and we thought the house was going to go down as well. Thank God, it didn't."

Local media said they had reports of some landslides in the Solosolo region of the main Samoan island of Upolu and damage to plantations in the countryside outside Apia.

American Samoa Gov. Togiola Tulafono was at his Honolulu office assessing the situation but was having difficulty getting information, said Filipp Ilaoa, deputy director of the office.

"There is some water damage to residences," Ilaoa said. "To what extent and how much, and how many villages are effected, that is a mystery at this time."

Rescue workers found a scene of destruction and debris with cars overturned or stuck in mud. The staff of the port ran to higher ground, and police soon came by, telling residents to get inland. Several students were seen ransacking a gas station/convenience store.

Rear Adm. Manson Brown, Coast Guard commander for the Pacific region, said the Coast Guard is in the early stages of assessing what resources to send to American Samoa. Coast Guard spokesman Lt. John Titchen said a C-130 was being dispatched Wednesday to deliver aid, asssess damage and take the governor back home. A New Zealand air force P3 Orion maritime search airplane also was being sent.

One of the runways at Pago Pago International Airport was being cleared of widespread debris for emergency use, Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor said in Los Angeles.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency said it was deploying teams to American Samoa to provide support and on the ground assessment.

"Our thoughts and prayers go out to the people of American Samoa and all those in the region who have been affected by these natural disasters," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said.

The ramifications of the tsunami could be felt thousands of miles away, with federal officials saying strong currents and dangerous waves were forecast from California to Washington state. No major flooding was expected, however.

The earthquake and tsunami were big, but not on the same large scale of the 2004 Indonesian tsunami that killed more than 150,000 across Asia the day after Christmas in 2004, said tsunami expert Brian Atwater of the U.S. Geological Survey in Seattle.

The 2004 earthquake was at least 10 times stronger than the 8.0 to 8.3 measurements being reported for Tuesday's quake, Atwater said. It's also a different style of earthquake than the one that hit in 2004.

The tsunami hit American Samoa about 25 minutes after the quake, which is similar to the travel time in 2004, Atwater said. The big difference is there were more people in Indonesia at risk than in Samoa.

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