A fresh tsunami alert rang out in the capital of Samoa in the South Pacific today, hours after tsunami waves crashed ashore, killing at least 39 people and leaving scores unaccounted for.
A reporter in the capital Apia told New Zealand’s National Radio: “There’s another warning of another tsunami, people are running for higher ground.”
The reporter was broadcasting live as police sounded sirens behind him to warn people to head for high ground across the island.
The US Geological Survey earthquake website and that of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre in Hawaii had no immediate reports of a new quake or tsunami in the region.
Reporter Autagavaia Tipi Autagavaia told the network there was a lot of panic, but no earthquake had been felt on the island.
Towering tsunami waves caused by a powerful Pacific Ocean earthquake swept ashore on Samoa and American Samoa yesterday, flooding and flattening villages, killing dozens of people.
Cars and people were swept out to sea by the fast-churning water as survivors fled to higher ground, where they remained huddled hours after the quake struck.
Signs of immense devastation were everywhere, with a giant boat washed ashore and coming to rest on the edge of a road and floodwaters swallowing up cars and homes.
The quake, with a magnitude between 8.0 and 8.3, struck around dawn local time about 20 miles below the ocean floor, 120 miles from American Samoa, a US territory home to 65,000 people.
Hampered by power and communications failures, officials struggled to assess the damage and casualties. At least 39 people were killed – 20 on Samoa and 19 on American Samoa – but officials acknowledged today that the death toll seemed sure to rise.
“I don’t think anybody is going to be spared in this disaster,” said acting American Samoa governor Faoa Sunia.
Mase Akapo, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in American Samoa, reported at least 19 people killed in four different villages on the main island of Tutuila. Officials reported at least 50 injured, and possibly many more.
In neighbouring Samoa, a reporter saw the bodies of about 20 victims in a hospital at Lalomanu town on the south coast of the main island of Upolu, and said the surrounding tourist coast had been devastated. At least three villages were flattened.
Mr Sunia declared a state of emergency in American Samoa, describing “immense and widespread damage to individual, public and commercial buildings in coastal areas” along with death and injury. Governor Togiola Tulafono, who was in Honolulu for a conference, said more victims could be found when rescuers reached areas inaccessible by roads.
Of the death toll, New Zealand’s acting prime minister Bill English said that there had “really only been guesses, but some of these places appear to have been hit very hard, and you would expect considerable loss of life”.
“I would underline the fact that this is a situation that’s unfolding,” Mr English said. “We don’t have information about the full impact and we do have some real concern that over the next 12 hours the picture could look worse rather than better.”
America Samoa is home to a US national park that appeared to be especially hard-hit. Holly Bundock, spokeswoman for the National Park Service’s Pacific West Region in Oakland, California, said staff had been able to locate only 20% of the park’s 13 to 15 employees and 30 to 50 volunteers.
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 afterwards, reaching up to a mile inland.
Residents in both Samoa and American Samoa reported being shaken awake by the quake, which lasted two to three minutes. It was followed by at least three large aftershocks of at least 5.6 magnitude.
New Zealander Graeme Ansell said the beach village of Sau Sau Beach Fale was levelled.
“It was very quick. The whole village has been wiped out,” he 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.”
The Samoan capital was virtually deserted with schools and businesses closed.
Local media said they had reports of landslides in the Solosolo region of the main Samoan island of Upolu and damage to plantations in the countryside outside Apia.
Eni Faleomavaega, who represents American Samoa as a non-voting delegate in the US House of Representatives, said he had talked to people by telephone who said that Pago Pago – just a few feet above sea level – was levelled.
In Washington, President Barack Obama issued a disaster declaration, making government funds available to victims in American Samoa.