Death toll from South Pacific tsunami expected to rise


The death toll from a massive South Pacific earthquake and tsunami continues to rise.

Hospital workers and officials now say at least 113 people are dead.

So far, at least 47 people have been confirmed dead in Samoa, 22 in neighbouring American Samoa, near the epicentre of the 8.0 magnitude quake, and seven people died in nearby Tonga.

Many families are spending Wednesday night on higher ground huddled together. Everyone in Samoa is scared that another earthquake may trigger another tsunami.

No fresh warnings

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre in Hawaii says it has not issued any more tsunami warnings for the region, since Wednesday morning’s alert.

People missing

Dozens more people are still missing, feared dead, but officials in the three South Pacific island nations say communications to many outlying villages are gone.

The tsunami wiped out much of the telecommunications infrastructure on both Samoa and American Samoa.

Solo Ali’i Fa’alepo from the office of the Governor of American Samoa says families there have been unable to contact those who left home for work this morning.

“They haven’t returned their calls,” he said.

Samoans overseas are desperate to hear from their families. New Zealand Samoan Community leader Peter Skelton plead for his brother to contact him during an interview on Radio Australia.

Tonga confirms deaths

The acting Tongan prime minister, Lord Tuita, says a survey of the northern island of Niuatoputatu, has confirmed seven deaths as a result of Wednesday morning’s tsunami.

He says the aerial surveillance team sent to the remote island could not land, because of severe flooding.

He told a press conference on Wednesday evening, that they had also confirmed three people were injured and four people are missing.

A cabinet meeting to discuss the government’s response has been scheduled for 10 am local time.

Senior reporter with Tonga Radio, Heti Fesita, says there are also plans to send a boat to the affected islands.

“One of Tonga’s special boats will be dispatched to the island of Niuatoputatu with medical teams and rescue workers will be sent to help with the rehabilitation effort on the island,” he said.

Washed away

Meanwhile, the ABC’s Kerrie Ritchie has arrived in Samoa and says resorts, homes and a newly built hospital have been washed away.

Tourists gathered at the airport in Samoa and recounted their tales of holiday horror.

New Zealander Hamish Nead was out surfing when the tsunami hit. He says the reef was sucked dry in front of his eyes.

Looking pale and shaken the Samoa’s Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele told the ABC that two children are missing from his village, and the body of one of his female friends was found in a tree.

He says everything happened like lightning and there wasn’t time to run.

While there isn’t much damage in Apia, locals say that it was chaos on the country’s east and south coast.

One thousand people have lost their homes in the tsunami.

Aid on the way

Meanwhile, Australia and New Zealand are preparing to fly medical supplies to Samoa and American Samoa, as local emergency services struggle with the scale of the disaster.

A chartered aircraft with medical supplies, search and rescue teams and emergency equipment will fly out of Australia on Wednesday night for Samoa.

Two Royal Australian Air Force Hercules aircraft are also ready to leave to take extra aid.

The Parliamentary Secretary for International Assistance, Bob McMullan, says the Samoan Government’s made it clear how serious the problem is.

“The most sort of stark thing that the Government said…is they need morgue facilities,” he said.

“Now that’s one of those messages that sends a chill down your spine…to hear someone…saying the problem is the morgue’s not adequate for the consequences.”

US President Barack Obama has declared a major disaster in American Samoa which frees up federal funds for disaster relief and other aid.

‘Emergency services struggling’

The editor of the Samoa Observer newspaper, Russell Hunter, says emergency services are beginning to struggle.

“Emergency services have responded quickly and quite well,” he said.

“The problem is the disaster is now of such magnitude we can tell they just don’t have the resources to deal with it adequately.”

The US has already sent an emergency team to American Samoa and other aid organisations have indicated their willingness to help.

The tsunami, caused by an 8.3 magnitude earthquake which struck 200 kilometres off the coast of American Samoa, reportedly created waves metres high that hit American Samoa’s capital Pago Pago.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre initially sent tsunami warnings across the Pacific, which were later cancelled. Japan’s Meteorological Agency issued a tsunami advisory, warning of waves up to 50 centimetres higher than usual.

No warning

Samoa’s deputy prime minister Misa Telefoni says there was no warning that the tsunami was going to hit.

He says the tourist resorts on the southern coast of Upolu island are completely gone.

Australians worried about friends or relatives in Samoa or American Samoa can telephone the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade hotline on 1300 555 135 (Australia only).