Tsunami toll mounts in the Samoas
Over 100 dead as aid is rushed to archipelago
APIA, Samoa - Disaster officials rushed food, medicine, and a temporary morgue to the Samoas yesterday after a powerful earthquake unleashed a tsunami that flattened villages and swept cars and people out to sea. At least 119 people were killed.
Survivors fled the waves for higher ground on the South Pacific islands after the magnitude-8.0 quake struck at 6:48 a.m. local time Tuesday.
Four tsunami waves 15 to 20 feet high roared ashore on American Samoa about 15 minutes after the quake, reaching up to a mile inland, Mike Reynolds, superintendent of the National Park of American Samoa, was quoted as saying by a parks service spokeswoman.
Military transports carrying medical personnel, food, water, medicines, and other supplies were headed to the stricken islands.
“Right now, we’re focused on bringing in the assistance for people that have been injured, and for the immediate needs of the tens of thousands of survivors down there,’’ Craig Fugate, a Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator, said.
A Coast Guard C-130 plane loaded with aid and carrying FEMA officials was headed from Hawaii to American Samoa’s capital of Pago Pago, where debris had been cleared from runways to allow for emergency planes to land.
“I cannot tell you exactly what kind of damages we had,’’ Fugate said. “We’re getting reports just like everyone else that this is a significant impact.’’
New Zealand’s acting Prime Minister, Bill English, said tents, stretchers, the temporary morgue facilities, and a body identification team were sent to Samoa after a request from local officials, who he said are concerned about the growing death toll.
The quake was centered about 120 miles south of the islands of Samoa, which has a population of 220,000, and American Samoa, a US territory of 65,000.
The Samoan capital, Apia, was virtually deserted by afternoon, with schools and businesses closed. Hours after the waves struck, sirens rang out with another tsunami alert, and panicked residents headed for higher ground again, although there was no indication of a new quake.
In Pago Pago, the streets and fields were filled with ocean debris, mud, overturned cars, and several boats as a massive cleanup effort stretched into the night. Several buildings in the city, which is just a few feet above sea level, were flattened. Power was expected to be out in some areas for up to a month.
President Obama has declared a major disaster for American Samoa. Obama said in a statement early yesterday that he and his wife, Michelle, “will keep those who have lost so much in our thoughts and prayers.’’
Hampered by power and communications outages, officials in the South Pacific islands struggled to determine damage and casualties.
Water service has been restored to many villages, but power is still out in most areas. More than 1,000 people spent the night in 15 emergency shelters.
Samoan police commissioner Lilo Maiava said that police had confirmed 63 deaths, but that many devastated areas were still being searched.
At least 30 people were killed on American Samoa, Governor Togiola Tulafono said, adding that the toll was expected to rise.
“I don’t think anybody is going to be spared in this disaster,’’ said Tulafono, who was in Hawaii for a conference. He said a member of his extended family was among the dead.