- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 3, 2007

HONIARA, Solomon Islands — The first boatloads of international aid reached survivors of a devastating tsunami in the Solomon Islands yesterday, but officials warned of a dire food shortage if supplies don’t quickly get to hundreds of people camped on remote hillsides.

At least 28 persons died in Monday’s tsunami and quake, which the U.S. Geological Survey measured at a magnitude of 8.1. The victims include a bishop and three worshippers killed when a wave hit a church and a New Zealand man who drowned trying to save his mother, who remains missing.

Disaster officials said the toll was expected to rise as rescue crews reached outlying villages that were flattened by the waves. Authorities conducting aerial surveys of the destruction saw bodies floating in the water. No official count of those missing was released.

Some of more than 2,000 people who spent Monday night camped on a hill behind the town of Gizo returned yesterday to look for supplies or loved ones. Others were too afraid to venture to the coast as more than two dozen aftershocks hit, including at least four of magnitude 6 or stronger.

Julian Makaa of the National Disaster Management Office said more than 900 homes had been destroyed around Gizo and about 5,000 people affected.

Boats reached Gizo yesterday from the Solomons’ capital, Honiara, carrying food and other supplies, some of which were distributed to survivors. But officials said shortages would become dire within days without more help.

“There is no food available” in Gizo and Noro, a nearby town, said government spokesman Alfred Maesulia. “Some settlements have been completely wiped out by the waves.”

Australia, New Zealand, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations were among those offering aid, but no formal relief plan was announced after a day of meetings by senior government officials. Mr. Makaa said the airport had been cleared of debris and would reopen today.

The earthquake, which struck about six miles beneath the seafloor and 25 miles from Gizo, set off alarms from Tokyo to Hawaii, testing procedures put into place after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that left 230,000 dead or missing in a dozen countries.

Because of Gizo’s proximity to the epicenter, the destructive waves — up to 16 feet high — hit before an alarm could be sounded. The disaster has rekindled debate about whether the multimillion-dollar warning systems installed after the 2004 tsunami are worth the cost.

“When you have a tsunami coming in so quickly after an earthquake, it doesn’t do much good to have an early warning system,” said U.S. earthquake specialist Kerry Sieh. Officials would be better off putting more resources into disaster response education and efforts to permanently relocate vulnerable communities to higher ground, he said.

No significant tsunami was reported Monday anywhere outside the Solomons, which are comprised of more than 200 islands with a population of about 552,000 people.

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