Tsunami Hits Samoa Islands, Dozens Die

Samoa Tsunami Kills 141 Before Quake Prompts Indian Ocean Watch (Bloomberg)

The downtown of Fagatoga was flooded when a tsunami hit American Samoa early on Tuesday. (AP)

SYDNEY, Australia — A powerful tsunami generated by an undersea earthquake killed more than two dozen people and wiped out several villages in the tropical islands of American Samoa and Samoa early on Tuesday there, according to officials and local residents who were working to assess the damage.

The earthquake struck around dawn, as many residents were preparing for work and getting their children ready for school. Officials said they expected heavy damage in the southern parts of Samoa and American Samoa, a United States territory with about 60,000 residents.

Damaged telephone lines on both islands hampered efforts to count the casualties and assess the destruction from the earthquake, with a magnitude of 8.0. It struck below the ocean about 120 miles southwest of American Samoa and 125 miles south of Samoa, and it was centered only 11 miles below the seabed, according to the United States Geological Survey.

At least 14 people were killed in American Samoa, the territory’s governor, Togiola T. A. Tulafono, said at a news conference in Hawaii. The toll could rise as emergency workers gain access to damaged areas, he and other officials said.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center at Ewa Beach, Hawaii, raised a regionwide alert that extended from American Samoa to New Zealand, though minimal damage was reported elsewhere.

Tsunami awareness is relatively high in this earthquake-prone part of the world, particularly after the devastating earthquake and tsunami on Dec. 26, 2004, that killed 227,898 people around the Indian Ocean, according to the United States Geological Survey. Even so, Filipo Ilaoa, deputy director of the American Samoan office in Honolulu, said that the tsunami struck the coast of American Samoa in “a matter of minutes” after the quake, and that many residents would not have had much time to run for higher ground.

“American Samoa is a small island, and most of the residents are around the coastline,” he said. “There was no warning or anything at all. By the time the alert was out of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, it had already hit.”

Both islands are just east of the international date line, which is why it was early Tuesday morning when the quake occurred, but it was already early Wednesday in Japan, China and Australia.

On Samoa, there were reports of at least a dozen casualties. Russell Hunter, the managing editor of The Samoa Observer newspaper in Vaitele, outside the capital, Apia, said his reporters had received word that at least 17 people on the island had been killed. Samoa’s police office did not respond to telephone calls, and phone lines on much of the island were cut or jammed.

“There is extensive damage in the southeast part of the island,” Mr. Hunter said. “It seems to be mostly in the rural villages,” which he said were mostly clustered along the coast and whose houses were generally made of light materials, including wood.

Many residents told local reporters of flattened houses and cars that were swept into neighboring towns. Graeme Ansell, a New Zealand tourist who was at Faofao Beach Fales on the southeast coast of Upolu Island, told Radio New Zealand that the village had been decimated. He said he and others had clambered up a nearby hill to safety.

Meraiah Foley reported from Sydney, and Sarah Wheaton from New York.

Published: September 29, 2009

Source: The New York Times

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