Death toll rising in American Samoa tsunami

September 29, 2009 8:37:48 PM PDT
A powerful Pacific Ocean earthquake spawned towering tsunami waves that swept ashore on Samoa and American Samoa, flooding and flattening villages, killing dozens of people and leaving several workers missing at devastated National Park Service facilities. 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 early Tuesday. Signs of immense devastation were everywhere, with a giant boat getting washed ashore and coming to rest on the edge of a highway and floodwaters swallowing up cars and homes.

SLIDESHOW: Photos from the Samoas following the tsunami

The quake, with a magnitude between 8.0 and 8.3, struck around dawn about 20 miles below the ocean floor, 120 miles (190 kilometers) from American Samoa, a U.S. territory that is home to 65,000 people.

Hampered by power and communications outages, officials hours later struggled to get a handle on the damage and casualties. At least 39 people were killed - 20 on Samoa and 19 on American Samoa - but officials acknowledged the death toll seemed sure to rise.

"I don't think anybody is going to be spared in this disaster," said acting American Samoa Gov. Faoa A. 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 neighboring Samoa, an Associated Press 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.

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. Gov. Togiola Tulafono, who was in Honolulu for a conference, told reporters that more victims could be found when rescuers reach areas that are inaccessible by roads.

Tulafono says his immediate family was safe, but there was at least one death among his extended family.

Of the death toll, New Zealand's acting Prime Minister Bill English said that there has "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," 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 U.S. national park that appeared to be especially hard-hit. Holly Bundock, spokeswoman for the National Park Service's Pacific West Region in Oakland, Calif., said the superintendent of the park and another staffers had been able to locate only 20 percent 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 afterward, reaching up to a mile inland. Bundock said Reynolds spoke to officials from under a coconut tree uphill from Pago Pago Harbor and reported that the park's visitor center and offices appeared to have been destroyed.

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 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."

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.

Rescue workers found a scene of destruction and debris with cars overturned or stuck in mud, and rockslides hit some roads. Several students were seen ransacking a gas station-convenience store.

Eni Faleomavaega, who represents American Samoa as a non-voting delegate in the U.S. House, said he had talked to people by telephone who said that Pago Pago - just a few feet above sea level - was leveled. Several hundred people had their homes destroyed, although getting more concrete information has been difficult, he said.

In Washington, President Barack Obama issued a disaster declaration, making federal funds available to victims in American Samoa.

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 assess damage.

"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 dominant industry in American Samoa - tuna canneries - was also affected. Chicken of the Sea's tuna packing plant in American Samoa was forced to close although the facility wasn't damaged, the San Diego-based company 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.

In Los Angeles, lifeguards said they will clear beaches around 8 p.m. in response to a tsunami advisory for possible dangerous currents.

Japan's Meteorological Agency also issued a tsunami warning all along that country's eastern coast.

While the earthquake and tsunami were big, they were not on the same 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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