SIUMU, Samoa | Rescuers fished bloated corpses from the South Pacific off Samoa and pulled bodies from the mud and twisted rubble of devastated islands as the death toll from a series of tsunamis neared 200 on Thursday.
The confirmed death toll stood at 149 in Samoa, 31 on American Samoa and nine on neighboring Tonga, but was expected to rise as officials feared that whole towns had been destroyed on outlying islands and hundreds of people remained missing.
About 20 villages were destroyed in Samoa and scores flattened in nearby American Samoa.
“Everybody is in a state of shock,” Rep. Eni F.H. Faleomavaega, American Samoa’s nonvoting delegate who arrived in American Samoa on Wednesday night, told Reuters news agency in a telephone interview. “Many families are still up on high ground. They don’t want to come down. We’re still having tremors” from the earthquake.
A Navy frigate carrying two helicopters and medical supplies arrived late Wednesday in American Samoa, and the Air Force dispatched two cargo planes. Australian officials said they would send an air force plane carrying 20 tons of humanitarian aid, the Associated Press reported.
Four powerful tsunamis generated by a strong magnitude-8.0 undersea earthquake crashed into the islands Tuesday, laying waste to a paradise of palm trees, resorts and pristine beaches. The waves, at least 20 feet high, ripped buildings apart and washed people out to sea, some still in their beds, survivors said.
“We have more bodies that are being found in the wreckage and being excavated and being brought to the hospital, so we expect that the death toll will rise,” said Dr. David Bouslough at the main hospital in Pago Pago, capital of American Samoa.
The Samoas lie about halfway between New Zealand and Hawaii, just east of the International Date Line.
Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi’s own village of Lesa was washed away - like many others on Samoa and nearby American Samoa and Tonga.
He described seeing “complete” devastation.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii said it issued an alert, but the waves came so quickly that residents only had about 10 minutes to respond.
Along the southern coast of Samoa’s main island, Upolu, which bore the brunt of the tsunamis, palm trees had nearly all been flattened, snapped like twigs by the force of the ocean.
A layer of mud and sand covered many shattered buildings, and boats and cars hung from trees as survivors scavenged the debris.
President Obama declared a major disaster in American Samoa and ordered federal aid to help the recovery.
Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) chief Craig Fugate told reporters in a telephone briefing that the American Samoa governor and the FEMA disaster coordinating officer had toured the area by air to view the damage.
“The devastation is frightening. Every family has been affected. One of my staff members has lost 13 members of her family,” said Adimaimalaga Tafunai, director of Women in Business Development Inc. in Apia.
The worst tsunami on record in the Indian Ocean, on Dec. 26, 2004, killed about 230,000 people in 11 countries.