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Deadly Tsunami Hits Samoan Islands

BY Talea Miller  September 30, 2009 at 3:26 PM EST

American Samoa after the tsunami; AFP/Getty

A magnitude 8.0 quake centered about 120 miles south of the islands of Samoa spawned massive waves that drove residents to higher ground and destroyed homes. The Associated Press reported that dozens of people are still missing in the wreckage.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency flew supplies of food, water and repair materials to American Samoa early Wednesday.

Samoa has reported 77 deaths, the majority of the tsunami’s casualties and more than twice the deaths reported by American Samoa. Samoa has a population of about 180,000 people, and American Samoa, a U.S. territory, has about 65,000.

The prime minister of Samoa Tuila’epe Sailele Malielegaoi, told Australia’s AAP news agency he was shocked by the destruction.

“So much has gone. So many people are gone,” he said. The BBC reported Samoa is considering aid offers from New Zealand and Australia.

Filipo Ilaoa, deputy director of the American Samoan office in Honolulu, told the New York Times that the tsunami hit the coast within minutes of the quake, there was little warning time. Most American Samoan residents live on the coastline of the island.

When an underwater earthquake hits that close to land and is relatively shallow, meaning it originates within 40 miles of the earth’s outer surface, there is usually not enough time to get an official warning to inhabitants, said Delores Clark, spokesperson for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, based in Hawaii.

“Public education becomes so important. We try to help people understand the natural warning signs for a tsunami,” so they can act quickly when they are in the situation, said Clark.

The three obvious signs of a tsunami are if the ground is shaking to the point where standing is difficult, the water recedes from the shoreline and exposes the ocean floor and if a loud roar can be heard from the ocean. These signals are taught as warnings that people should go inland and find higher ground.

Eni Faleomavaega, who represents American Samoa in the U.S. Congress, said the waves had “literally wiped out all the low-lying areas in the Samoan islands,” reported the BBC.

After the tsunami hit, the streets of American Samoa’s capital of Pago Pago were reportedly filled with debris and several buildings in the city were flattened. The eastern part of American Samoa was without power and water supplies, and power could be out in some areas for up to a month.

American Samoa Gov. Togiola Tulafono, spoke with CNN from Hawaii and said the quake ranked “right up there with some of the worst” disasters on the island. He said the military may mobilize reserve forces for assistance.

After the 8.0 magnitude quake, 15 smaller quakes hit the Samoan islands region over the next several hours, the U.S. Geological Survey said.

Less than 24 hours after the first quake, another underwater quake hit western Indonesia on Wednesday, causing a tsunami alert for countries along the Indian Ocean, which was later cancelled. The 7.6-magnitude quake created a landslide on Sumatra island, and at least 75 people were reported killed. The two quakes do not appear to be related.

After 2005′s devastating Tsunami hit southeast Asia, more attention was drawn to the need for early warning systems, public education and a plan of action in case of an alert.

Tsunami warning centers in the U.S. doubled their staff and went into 24 hour a day operations. They also broadened their area of responsibility, serving not just the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean, but also acting as the interim warning center for the Indian Ocean.

Clark, of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, said it is up to each country and the local governing authorities to determine how the warnings are then distributed to the public. Often that can involve radio announcements, or sirens.

As a U.S. territory, American Samoa has a national forecasting service office which received communication from the warning center in Hawaii once the earthquake occurred. However, it still takes about 15 minutes to get an alert issued.
“We don’t have the technology to process that information and get the word out within minutes,” said Clark. “We are working towards that but the technology is not there yet.”