Tsunamis devastate Samoan islands

An underwater earthquake with a magnitude of at least 8.0 generates giant walls of water that sweeps away entire communities.

A playground and a tennis park in Pago Pago, American Samoa, after a series of tsunamis hit the island.
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SYDNEY // A savage act of nature has shattered parts of the South Pacific after a powerful deep-sea earthquake sent a series of tsunamis crashing into Samoa and nearby American Samoa. Officials have said entire communities have been swept away by giant walls of water unleashed by violent seismic forces beneath the ocean floor.

There has been widespread loss of life and immense damage has been caused, but it is likely to be days, if not weeks, before the true extent of the disaster finally emerges amid reports that bodies have been washed out to sea or lie entombed under tonnes of sand. "About three to four villages got destroyed by the tsunami," said Faalua Tauai, a resident of Tutuila Island in American Samoa, a United States territory that lies in the Pacific between New Zealand and Hawaii. "The ocean came, it flooded all over, right on the road and then people got evacuated. They have to go on high, like mountains, and there's about five villages on the mountain, so that's where people are going."

Isolated and impoverished settlements will need generous outside help to recover the dead, treat the injured and house the displaced. The US president, Barack Obama, has declared a major disaster, which will trigger emergency aid for stricken areas. Eni Faleomavaega, who represents American Samoa in Congress, told reporters that the United States had the expertise to ensure that survivors would not be neglected.

"Let me just say that we've learned our lesson in [Hurricane] Katrina [that devastated New Orleans in 2005] and I'm quite sure we're already making preparations right now to send aircraft to provide the necessary supplies." Overseas tourists have also been caught up in the mayhem. Holiday resorts have been inundated in some of the worst-hit parts of Samoa and international visitors are among the dead.

The Australian foreign minister, Stephen Smith, said: "The most difficult issue for us is that the disaster has struck the south-east portion of the island, where we find a number of both luxury and budget accommodation resorts and we're concerned that Australians may have been there holidaying." The emergency sparked panic across the region. Tsunami warnings were issued for New Zealand, Fiji and Tonga, where several islanders drowned, although Samoa and American Samoa bore the brunt of a furious onslaught.

Japan's Meteorological Agency put its entire east coast on alert, while on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, lifeguards in Los Angeles planned to clear beaches in response to the threat of dangerous currents. While a sophisticated network of sensors and deep-seas buoys allowed the Hawaii-based Pacific Tsunami Warning Center to raise the alarm quickly, the message failed to filter through in time to many of those who needed it most: islanders in remote parts of the Samoa archipelago where there are no telephone lines or electricity.

James Goff, a professor of tsunami research at the University of New South Wales, said the early warning systems failed those who have lost their lives. "They should not have died and that's largely because they didn't know what to do; they were not prepared and that is our failing as scientists, our failing in the tsunami community. People need to know what to do and it is not difficult. It is just a case of getting the message across."

Although the earthquake and large waves that struck Samoa and American Samoa were substantial, they were not on the same scale of the 2004 Indonesian tsunami that killed about 230,000 people across 11 countries. Scientists have said that catastrophic event was at least 10 times stronger than the 8.0 to 8.3 measurements being reported for Tuesday's quake far beneath the South Pacific. foreign desk@thenational.ae