- The Washington Times - Monday, April 2, 2007

HONIARA, Solomon Islands — Bodies floated out to sea and thousands of residents camped out overnight today on a hillside above a devastated town in the western Solomon Islands after a tsunami that struck without warning washed away coastal villages, killing at least 13 persons. The death toll is expected to rise.

A wall of water reportedly 30 feet high struck the island of Choiseul and swept a third of a mile inland, while smaller but still destructive waves surged ashore elsewhere in the western part of the impoverished archipelago, causing widespread damage and leaving thousands homeless.

The tsunami was triggered by a magnitude 8 earthquake that struck shortly after 7:39 a.m. yesterday six miles beneath the seafloor, about 25 miles from the western island of Gizo and 215 miles northwest of the Solomons’ capital, Honiara, the U.S. Geological Survey said.

The quake — the strongest in the Solomons in more than three decades — set off tsunami alarms from Tokyo to Hawaii and closed beaches along the east coast of Australia more than 1,250 miles away. Lifeguards with bullhorns yelled at surfers to get out of the water at Sydney’s famous Bondi Beach.

The danger passed quickly, but officials rejected suggestions they overreacted, adding that the emergency had tested procedures put in place after the 2004 Indian Ocean disaster that left 230,000 dead or missing in a dozen countries.

Up to 4,000 people were camped on a hill behind Gizo, a town of about 7,000, said Alex Lokopio, prime minister of the hard-hit Western Province. Floodwaters subsided, but the Red Cross reported about 500 houses were damaged or destroyed, leaving 2,000 homeless. Many people were too scared to return to the coast amid more than two dozen aftershocks, including at least four of magnitude 6 or stronger.

Initial reports from other islands suggest similar or worse levels of damage, the Red Cross said. Roads were inaccessible and there was heavy damage to infrastructure, including phones and electricity, said Martin Blackgrove, the International Red Cross’ regional disaster management coordinator for the Pacific, based in Fiji.

Because of Gizo’s proximity to the quake’s epicenter, the tsunami struck before an alarm could be sounded.

“There wasn’t any warning — the warning was the earth tremors,” Mr. Lokopio told New Zealand’s National Radio. “It shook us very, very strongly, and we were frightened, and all of a sudden the sea was rising up.”

Within five minutes, a wall of water up to 16 feet high plowed into the coast, inundating homes, businesses, a hospital, schools and two police stations, and dumping boats into streets in Gizo, a popular spot for diving, witnesses and officials said.

Outlying villages, where many houses are flimsy wooden structures, may have fared worse, based on scattered reports from residents with two-way radios.

The Solomons archipelago has more than 200 islands with a population of about 552,000 and lies on the Pacific Basin’s so-called “Ring of Fire,” an arc of volcanoes and fault lines where quakes are frequent.

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