The Pacific tsunami - Hundred Dead & Wounded
TSUNAMIS that struck in the South Pacific on Tuesday September 29th were nowhere near as devastating as the waves that hit countries around the Indian Ocean in December 2004. Then, an earthquake of 9.0 magnitude caused a tsunami that claimed an estimated 230,000 lives. According to the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre, the waves this week were triggered by an 8.3 magnitude earthquake that took place some 120 miles (195km) south of the Samoa group of islands (see map). On Wednesday another earthquake, well over 7 magnitude, was reported off Sumatra, in Indonesia.
Over 100 people were thought to have died in Samoa and American Samoa, which together have a population of some 250,000. American Samoa was reportedly hit by four separate waves. Another seven people were killed in Tonga, several hundred kilometres farther south.
Witnesses described fleeing from waves 4.5 metres tall which swept people, cars and other debris as far as 100 metres inland. Many Samoan settlements are coastal and both Apia and Pago Pago, the capitals respectively of Samoa and American Samoa, were deluged.
Thousands have been made homeless and survivors are said to be sheltering on high ground. Samoan meteorological officials suggest that some victims were killed by a second wave that swept ashore as they gathered fish washed up by the first.
The death toll might have been worse if the waves had struck in darkness rather than the early morning. It helped, too, that some lessons had been learned from previous disasters. A general tsunami alert was issued across the Pacific, as far apart as Hawaii and New Zealand. Samoa itself developed an early-warning system following the 2004 tsunami, based on the sending of text messages to local leaders, followed by the sounding of church bells and sirens.
A national drill was held in 2007 after a tsunami had killed over 20 people in the Solomon Islands. But Misa Telefoni, Samoa’s deputy prime minster, said that the speed of Tuesday’s disaster left people with desperately little time to respond. “The ocean went out within five minutes [of the earthquake].”
That suggests that the best protection is training coastal dwellers themselves to recognise the signs of a possible tsunami—such as strong, prolonged ground shaking—and to seek higher ground at once. As with most hazards, the more informed the public are, the better their chances of survival.
Aid will flow quickly to many affected areas. Barack Obama, America’s president, has declared that the situation in American Samoa is a disaster and has promised that federal relief funds will be available.
Australia and New Zealand, where many Samoans reside, and Britain reported their citizens to be among the dead. New Zealand’s air force is helping to search for bodies and to transport medical and other aid.
The tsunami is a setback in a region of weak economies: many of the island countries are heavily reliant on aid and remittances. The waves may also raise anxieties in low-lying islands, such as Tuvalu and the
Tokelau Islands, that rising sea levels will mean greater threats from the ocean to human life and livelihoods.
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