A massive tsunami hurled by a powerful earthquake flattened Samoan villages and swept cars and people out to sea, killing at least 99 and leaving dozens missing Wednesday. The toll was expected to rise.
The same day, western Indonesia was rocked by a strong underwater temblor, briefly triggering a tsunami alert for countries along the Indian Ocean and sending panicked residents out of their houses.
The alert was later canceled. Survivors of the South Pacific islands tsunami fled the fast-churning water for higher ground and remained huddled there hours after the quake, with a magnitude between 8.0 and 8.3, struck around dawn Tuesday.
The quake was centered about 125 miles (200 kilometers) from Samoa, an island nation of 180,000 people located about halfway between New Zealand and Hawaii. It was about 120 miles (190 kilometers) from neighboring American Samoa, a U.S. territory that is home to 65,000 people.
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.
Hampered by power and communications outages, officials struggled to determine damage and casualties.
Samoan police commissioner Lilo Maiava told The Associated Press that police there had confirmed 63 deaths but that officials were still searching the devastated areas, so the number of deaths might rise soon.
Hundreds of injured people were being treated by health workers, and people were still cramming into centers seeking treatment, Maiava said. At least 30 people were killed on American Samoa, Gov. Togiola Tulafono said, adding that the toll was expected to rise as emergency crews were recovering bodies overnight.
“I don’t think anybody is going to be spared in this disaster,” said Tulafono, who was in Hawaii for a conference. In Washington, President Obama has declared a major disaster for American Samoa.
Obama said the Federal Emergency Management Agency is in contact with emergency responders, and the U.S. Coast Guard is helping deliver resources to areas in need of assistance.
The disaster declaration allows the United States to provide the support necessary for a “full, swift and aggressive response,” the president said. In a statement issued early Wednesday, Obama said he and his wife, Michelle, “will keep those who have lost so much in our thoughts and prayers.
” Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi looked shaken Wednesday on board a flight from Auckland, New Zealand, to the Samoan capital of 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.” Gov. Tulafono told reporters in Hawaii that a member of his extended family was among the dead in American Samoa.
Because the closeness of the community, “each and every family is going to be affected by someone who’s lost their life,” he said as he boarded a Coast Guard C-130 plane in Hawaii to return home.
The plane, which also carried FEMA officials and aid, was scheduled to arrive at about 7 a.m. local time. (2 p.m. EDT; 1800 GMT) Authorities in Tonga confirmed at least six additional people dead in the island nation west of the Samoas, New Zealand’s acting Prime Minister Bill English said.
He said Tongan officials told him that four people were missing after the tsunami swept ashore on the northern island of Niua.
“There are a considerable number of people who’ve been swept out to sea and are unaccounted for,” English said.
“We don’t have information about the full impact and we do have some real concern that over the next 12 hours the picture could look worse rather than better.” Britain’s Press Association news agency, citing unidentified sources, said that a 2-year-old British child was killed in Samoa.
It was unclear whether that reported death was included in the overall toll. The Foreign Office said Wednesday that one British national was missing and presumed dead in the disaster.
A New Zealand P3 Orion maritime surveillance airplane had reached the region Wednesday afternoon and had searched for survivors off the coast, he said. It was expected to resume searching at first light.
The Samoa Red Cross said it had opened five temporary shelters and estimated that about 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 Samoa’s capital, 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.”
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd told Seven Network in Australia that two Australians had died in the tsunami, including a 6-year-old girl.
Mase Akapo, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in American Samoa, reported at least 19 people killed in four different villages on the main island of Tutuila. Officials reported at least 50 injured.
Residents in 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 (32 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.
The Samoan capital, Apia, was virtually deserted by afternoon, with schools and businesses closed. Hours after the waves struck, fresh 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 by either the quake or the tsunami.
Several areas were expected to be without electricity for up to a month. The dominant industry in American Samoa – tuna canneries – was also affected. Chicken of the Sea’s tuna packing plant in American Samoa was forced to close although the facility wasn’t damaged, the San Diego-based company said.
The effects of the tsunami could be felt thousands of miles away. Japan’s Meteorological Agency said “very weak” tsunami waves were registered off the island of Hachijojima about 10 hours after the quake.
There were no reports of injuries or damage in Japan, which is about 4,700 miles (7,600 kilometers) northwest of Samoa. U.S. officials said strong currents and dangerous waves were forecast from California to Washington state. No major flooding was expected, however.
In Los Angeles, lifeguards said they would clear beaches at about 8 p.m. in response to an advisory for possible dangerous currents.
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.