- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 30, 2009

APIA, Samoa (AP) — Federal disaster officials say “tens of thousands” of people on American Samoa and Samoa will need their help after a lethal tsunami in the South Pacific.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency was flying into American Samoa with food, water and repair supplies early Wednesday, and officials are anticipating the worst. Administrator Craig Fugate says “tens of thousands” of survivors will need assistance, many of whom were injured.

At least 99 people were killed after the magnitude 8.0 quake struck at 6:47 a.m. local time and sent giant waves crashing down on the islands. The quake was centered about 120 miles south of the islands of Samoa and American Samoa, a U.S. territory of 65,000.

Four tsunami waves 15 to 20 feet (4 to 6 meters) high roared ashore on American Samoa, reaching up to a mile (1.5 kilometers) inland, Mike Reynolds, superintendent of the National Park of American Samoa, was quoted as saying by a parks service spokeswoman.

Less than 24 hours later, another strong underwater earthquake rocked western Indonesia on Wednesday, briefly triggering a tsunami alert for countries along the Indian Ocean and sending panicked residents out of their houses. The quake toppled buildings, cut power and triggered a landslide on Sumatra island, and at least 13 people were reported killed.

The Samoan capital, Apia, was virtually deserted by afternoon, with schools and businesses closed. Hours after the waves struck, sirens rang out with another tsunami alert and panicked residents headed for higher ground again, although there was no indication of a new quake.

In American Samoa’s capital of Pago Pago, the streets and fields were filled with ocean debris, mud, overturned cars and several boats as a massive cleanup effort continued into the night. Several buildings in the city — just a few feet above sea level — were flattened. Several areas were expected to be without power for up to a month.

In Washington, President Obama has declared a major disaster for American Samoa. Obama said in a statement early Wednesday that he and his wife, Michelle, “will keep those who have lost so much in our thoughts and prayers.”

Hampered by power and communications outages, officials in the South Pacific islands struggled to determine damage and casualties.

Samoan police commissioner Lilo Maiava told The Associated Press that police had confirmed 63 deaths but devastated areas were still being searched.

At least 30 people were killed on American Samoa, Gov. Togiola Tulafono said, adding that the toll was expected to rise from searches by emergency crews.

“I don’t think anybody is going to be spared in this disaster,” said Tulafono, who was in Hawaii for a conference. He added that a member of his extended family was among the dead.

Authorities in Tonga, which is south of the Samoas, confirmed at least six dead on that island nation west of the Samoas, according to New Zealand’s acting Prime Minister Bill English. He said Tongan officials told him that four people were missing after the tsunami struck the northern island of Niua.

The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs said three Australians were among the dead. The British Foreign Office said one Briton was missing and presumed dead.

Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi looked shaken as he flew from Auckland, New Zealand, to Apia.

“So much has gone. So many people are gone,” he told reporters on board. “I’m so shocked, so saddened by all the loss.”

Malielegaoi said his own village of Lepa was destroyed.

“Thankfully, the alarm sounded on the radio and gave people time to climb to higher ground,” he said. “But not everyone escaped.”

Tulafono said that because the closeness of the community in American Samoa, “each and every family is going to be affected by someone who’s lost their life.” He spoke to reporters before boarding a Coast Guard C-130 plane in Hawaii to return home. The plane, which also carried aid and Federal Emergency Management Agency officials, was scheduled to arrive about 7 a.m. local time (2 p.m. EDT; 1800 GMT). FEMA said it was also preparing to take supplies stored in Hawaii to the island chain.

A New Zealand P3 Orion maritime surveillance airplane had reached the region Wednesday and had searched for survivors off the coast, he said.

The Samoa Red Cross estimated that 15,000 people were affected by the tsunami.

New Zealander Graeme Ansell said the Samoan beach village of Sau Sau Beach Fale was leveled.

“It was very quick. The whole village has been wiped out,” Ansell told New Zealand’s National Radio from a hill near Apia. “There’s not a building standing. We’ve all clambered up hills, and one of our party has a broken leg. There will be people in a great lot of need ‘round here.”

Residents of both Samoa and American Samoa reported being shaken awake by the quake early Tuesday, which lasted two to three minutes and was centered about 20 miles (30 kilometers) below the ocean floor. It was followed by at least three large aftershocks of at least 5.6 magnitude.

The quake came Tuesday morning for the Samoas, which lie just east of the international dateline. For Asia-Pacific countries on the other side of the line, it was already Wednesday.

American Samoa’s dominant industry — tuna canning — was also affected. Chicken of the Sea’s packing plant was forced to close, although the facility wasn’t damaged, the San Diego-based company said.

The effects of the tsunami could be felt nearly 5,000 miles away (7,500 kilometers) on a Japanese island, though there were no reports of damage or injuries there.

U.S. officials said strong currents and dangerous waves were forecast from California to Washington state. No major flooding was expected, however.

While the earthquake and tsunami were big, they were not on the same scale of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, said Brian Atwater of the U.S. Geological Survey in Seattle. That tsunami killed more than 230,000 in a dozen countries across Asia.

Sagapolutele reported from Pago Pago, American Samoa. Associated Press writers Ray Lilley in Wellington, New Zealand; Jaymes Song and Herbert A. Sample in Honolulu and Seth Borenstein and Michele Salcedo in Washington contributed to this report.

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