By Michael Perry
SYDNEY (Reuters) – A series of tsunamis smashed into the Pacific island nations of American and Western Samoa killing possibly more than 100 people, some washed out to sea, destroying villages and injuring hundreds, officials said on Wednesday.
President Barack Obama declared a major disaster in American Samoa, a U.S. territory, and ordered federal aid to help recovery efforts, with a U.S. C-130 military transport aircraft due to leave Honolulu for the tiny South Pacific islands.
Television images showed homes ripped apart, cars submerged in the sea or lodged in trees and large fishing boats hurled ashore by the waves generated by a 8.0 magnitude quake southwest of American Samoa.
A second 7.9 magnitude earthquake hit the Indonesian island of Sumatra late on Wednesday, prompting the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center to issue a tsunami watch for Indonesia, India, Thailand and Malaysia.
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said at least 60 people had been killed in Western Samoa. Local media said there were three Australians among the dead.
Disaster officials said the toll may reach 100 as rescuers search for bodies in flattened villages along the southern shore of the island of Upolu.
Twenty villages on Upolu’s south side were reportedly destroyed, including Lepa, the home of Samoa’s prime minister. The area is also the main tourist area, and the waves destroyed some resorts.
“Thankfully the alarm sounded on the radio and gave people time to climb to higher ground. But not everyone escaped,” said Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, adding two children en route to hospital for flu treatment were swept away.
“Their car was just taken away. I’m so shocked, so saddened by all the loss,” he told reporters on a flight from Auckland, New Zealand to Apia, the capital of Western Samoa.
The Australian government said two Australians, a six-year old girl and a woman aged 50, were killed and six others were missing. “It does look like there will be substantial loss of life in Samoa,” said Australia’s Aid Minister Bob McMullan.
In neighboring American Samoa at least 24 people were killed and 50 injured, American Samoa Governor Togiola Tulafono said from Hawaii, with the southern portion of the main Tutuila island “devastated.” The death toll there may also rise, said officials.
In Washington, Obama issued a statement of condolence and said the U.S. was ready to help American and Western Samoa respond to the tragedy.
“We will continue to provide the resources necessary to respond to this catastrophe, and we will keep those who have lost so much in our thoughts and prayers,” he said.
HUGE WAVES, BUILDINGS DEMOLISHED
Director of American Samoa’s homeland security Mike Sala said the waves that hit Pago Pago village were about 6 metres (20 feet) high.
“Some buildings were completely demolished by the waves, you know, there’s no buildings anymore except the foundation,” Sala told Radio New Zealand.
New Zealand said there were also serious concerns about the neighboring island nation of Tonga after a 4-meter (13-foot) wave hit its northern coast. Tongan officials confirmed seven people were killed, while three were missing late on Wednesday.
The two Samoas and Tonga have a combined population of around 400,000 people.
Small tsunamis also reached New Zealand, Hawaii and Japan.
An Indian Ocean tsunami on December 26, 2004, which killed about 230,000 people across 11 countries, is the worst on record.
Shortly after local radio tsunami warnings were issued in American and Western Samoa, waves started crashing into the capital of American Samoa, Pago Pago, and villages and resorts on the southern coasts, witnesses said.
“It’s believed as of now, there could be a number close to 100 deaths,” said Ausegalia Mulipola, assistant chief executive of Western Samoa’s disaster management office.
“Some areas have been flattened and the tsunami brought a lot of sand onshore, so there have been reports the sand has covered some of the bodies,” Mulipola told Reuters.
Wendy Booth, owner of the Samoan resort Sea Breeze on the southside of Upolu said she and her husband Chris were almost washed away when the waves destroyed their resort.
“The second wave hit and came up through the floor, pushed out the back door and threw us outside,” Wendy Booth told Fairfax Radio Network in Australia.
She said the two survived by hanging onto each other and a handrail as parts of their resort disintegrated around them.
“Our restaurant just floated out to sea complete, until it smashed up in the water,” Chris Booth told Australian television.
Red Cross teams had mobilized more than 100 emergency workers who were collecting coconuts to help meet early food and water needs, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said.
(Additional reporting by Adrian Bathgate and Mantik Kusjanto in Wellington, Rob Taylor and James Grubel in Canberra, Stacey Joyce in Washington, Bud Seba in Houston, Jim Christie in San Francisco, Peter Henderson in Los Angeles)
(Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)