Tsunami hits Solomons, eight feared dead
April 2, 2007 - 8:09AM
A massive undersea earthquake sent a tsunami crashing into the Solomon Islands, destroying at least one town with unconfirmed reports of eight deaths, including six children, officials said.
The Pacific region, from Australia to Hawaii, went on high alert for several hours after the magnitude-8 quake struck between the islands of Bougainville and New Georgia, though officials cancelled a region-wide tsunami warning after the danger period passed.
Police and residents said a wave several metres high crashed ashore at Gizo, a regional centre in the country's west just 40 kilometres from the quake's epicentre, inundating buildings and causing widespread destruction.
"All the houses near the sea were flattened," as water "right up to your head" swept through the town, resident Judith Kennedy told The Associated Press.
"The downtown area is a very big mess from the tsunami and the earthquake," she said, adding that aftershocks were still being felt several hours later.
"A lot of houses have collapsed. The whole town is still shaking."
Another witness, dive shop owner Danny Kennedy, estimated the height of the wave at three metres.
"I'm driving down the street - there are boats in the middle of the road, buildings have completely collapsed and fallen down," he said in a telephone interview.
"We're just trying to mobilise water and food, and shelter for people at the moment because ... in the town alone there's going to be between 2,000-3,000 homeless.
"It's not a very good scene at the moment."
A man who answered the telephone at the Gizo police station said up to eight people had been killed by the tsunami - including a man, a woman and six children - but said the deaths were still unconfirmed. The phone cut out before the man gave his name.
Another town in Western Province, Munda, was also believed to be badly damaged, officials and the national broadcaster said, but communications were difficult and details were not confirmed.
Robert Iroga, editor of the Honiara-based Solomon Star newspaper, said three people had been confirmed dead, with fears for two more people missing.
"It doesn't look good. They estimate the number could still go up because the tsunami is so destructive," Mr Iroga told AAP from Honiara.
Mr Iroga said the provincial capital of Gizo had been hit along with surrounding villages and the provincial airport on a neighbouring island.
"They said it was really huge. It came from a distance and it washed (over) the airport. They are cancelling the flights down there so we are unable to get there."
There were unconfirmed reports an entire village had been washed out to sea, prompting fears the casualty count could rise during the day, the newspaper editor said.
Eyewitnesses from the Gizo region contacted by the Solomon Star had described their dramatic escape from the tsunami.
"It was coming on them and they had to run really fast. It just washed everything that came in its way," Mr Iroga said.
He compared the tsunami to the devastating waves that hit Indonesia two years ago and said some of the Solomons' many low-lying islands had simply been flooded as the tsunami came through.
"It just ran past them like a vehicle running over something," he said.
The Pacific nation's western province is its wealthiest, generating revenue from the thousands of tourists - many of them Australian and New Zealanders - who flock to the resorts and beaches.
"The resorts and hotels and other tourism-related facilities might be seriously affected," Mr Iroga said.
A tsunami alert was still in force, with fears further destructive waves could hit over the next few hours, he said.
There were also fears of disease outbreaks following the devastation left by the tsunami, the editor said.
Many Gizo residents drew their water supply from wells which have been flooded by the massive wave.
"We need urgent assistance from abroad as we can't fund (the response to) this sort of tragedy and a disaster of this magnitude.
The US Geological Centre said the magnitude 7.6 earthquake struck about 10 kilometres beneath the sea floor about 350 km northwest of the Solomons capital of Honiara at 7.39am local time. It later upgraded the strength to magnitude to 8.0.
The Hawaii-based Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre said quakes of that strength could cause a destructive tsunami and issued a warning bulletin for the Solomon Islands and neighbouring Papua New Guinea.
It ordered a lower-level "tsunami watch" for other places, including most South Pacific countries, but later cancelled the alert. A cautionary alert for Hawaii was also cancelled.
Sea level readings indicated a 15-centimetre in Honiara, the centre said.
Police Sgt Godfrey Abiah said in Honiara that police in Gizo had received warning about a possible tsunami and were helping people leave the town for higher ground when the wave hit.
"We have lost radio contact with the two police stations down there and we're not getting any clear picture from down there," he told AP.
A spokesman for Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, Deli Oso, said the quake was felt in Honiara but no damage was done.
The Australian Bureau of Meteorology said it had detected no tsunami threat for Australia's northeast coast, one of the area's listed on the earlier warning.
Papua New Guinea appeared to have escaped damage from the tsunami but officials told of a large wave hitting nearby islands in the Solomons Islands.
PNG's Bougainville Affairs Minister Peter Barter said the tsunami had sent a two-metre swell through the Russell Islands, north-west of Guadalcanal in the Solomons.
"There's been reports of a quarter (of a metre) sea level rising around the Carteret Islands (off Bougainville)," Mr Barter said from Bougainville, which is close to the Solomons.
"There have also been reports from Milne Bay that a two metre surge has gone through Russell Island and seven houses have been washed away."
The Russell Islands were close to the earthquake's epicentre, he said.
There had been no reports of damage on Bougainville so far, although nearby Rabaul has experienced receding sea levels which had later returned to normal, Mr Barter said.