A powerful earthquake that struck in the South Pacific Ocean at 17:48:11 UTC (06:48:11 local time) on September 29, 2009 generated a series of tsunamis that caused devastation in Samoa (population of 180,000 people), American Samoa (population of 65,000 people) and Tonga (population of 120,000 people). The earthquake, measuring 8.0 Mw, was located around 115 miles (185 kilometers) east-northeast of Hihifo in Tonga and 125 miles (195 kilometers) south of Apia in Samoa, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). The USGS added that the quake was centred about 11 miles (18 kilometers) underground. At least 15 aftershocks with a magnitude exceeding 5.0 followed the initial earthquake in the region, the USGS said.
According to the USGS, Samoa and American Samoa experienced IV-V shaking on the Modified Mercalli Intensity (MMI) scale, equivalent to light to moderate shaking with the potential for very light or no damage. However, the earthquake generated a series of tsunamis that caused significant casualties and property damage in the region. Early reports indicate more than 100 people have been killed and several villages have been flattened or submerged. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre issued a tsunami alert for a vast swathe of the Pacific following the earthquake, including the Samoan islands, Fiji, Tonga and New Zealand. Although small tsunamis were reported as far away as New Zealand and Japan, the severe damage was confined to Samoa, American Samoa and Tonga.
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The Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre said three waves of up to 5.2 feet (1.6 meters) smashed into the low-lying Samoa islands. The Samoa islands are comprised of two separate entities - the nation of Samoa and American Samoa, a U.S. territory. Officials in Samoa say whole villages have been wiped out while hundreds of people are reported to have been made homeless in American Samoa.
In Samoa, Prime Minister Tuila’epe Sailele Malielegaoi said at least 77 people had been killed, including four overseas visitors, with 150 more being treated in hospital. Television images showed villages had been completely obliterated in the country. Officials said twenty villages along the southern coastline of the island of Upolu were destroyed, including Lepa. The coastline is also the main tourist area, and the waves have reportedly destroyed some resorts. Eyewitnesses said two of the Samoa’s most popular resorts, Sinalei Reef Resort and Coconuts Beach Resort, had been hit hard. According to reports, there has been widespread destruction in southern Samoa, with possibly hundreds of people left homeless on the islands. Officials also said thousands of people in the capital of Samoa, Apia, were evacuated to higher ground.
In American Samoa, waves of 5.2 feet (1.6 meters) caused severe damage, prompting President Barrack Obama to declare a ‘major disaster’ and order federal aid for the island. In Pago Pago, the capital of American Samoa, reports suggest that sea waters surged some 100 yards (90 meters) inland before receding, devastating villages and resorts and causing widespread power outages. Officials said some areas of American Samoa are only a few feet above sea level and the surge of water caused severe damage to property and swept cars and people out to sea. Officials in Pago Pago said several buildings were flattened and the streets were filled with ocean debris, mud, overturned cars and several boats. Reports also stated people living in outlying villages on the island were cut off because the connecting bridge was washed away. At least 30 people have been killed in American Samoa and officials warned the number of casualties was expected to rise as rescue workers work to reach outlying villages.
Tsunami waves also hit Tonga, where officials said at least seven people were killed. Three others are missing in Tonga and four people are being treated for serious injuries. Officials have also reported widespread damage. A government spokesman said the hospital on the island is reported to have suffered major damage, homes and government buildings have been destroyed, communications are down and the airport runway has been severely damaged.
Sources: USGS, WSI, Reuters News, Associated News, Agence France Presse, BBC News, CNN News
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