A powerful tsunami generated by an undersea earthquake on Tuesday has killed at least 89 people and wiped out several villages on the tropical islands of American Samoa and Samoa, according to government officials, the police and local residents.
The earthquake, with a magnitude of 8.0, struck around dawn on Tuesday, as many residents were preparing for work and getting their children ready for school. Over the next 12 hours, 15 smaller quakes rumbled through the Samoan islands region, and 14 more were recorded near Tonga, to the south, according to the United States Geological Survey.
At least 24 people were killed in American Samoa, according to officials there, and the territory’s governor, Togiola T. A. Tulafono, said in a news conference that the worst damage had been caused by the second and third waves in a series of four. There was also widespread devastation reported in the territory’s capital, Pago Pago.
In a statement from the White House, President Obama declared that “a major disaster exists in the Territory of American Samoa,” and he authorized federal aid to supplement local recovery efforts.
Filipo Ilaoa, deputy director of the American Samoan office in Honolulu, said that the tsunami struck the territory’s coast in “a matter of minutes” after the quake and that many residents would not have had much time to run for higher ground.
“American Samoa is a small island, and most of the residents are around the coastline,” he said. “There was no warning or anything at all. By the time the alert was out of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, it had already hit.”
On Samoa, 65 people had died and 145 had been injured, according to the general manager of the National Health Service, who spoke Wednesday afternoon to the BBC.
There were reports late Wednesday that six people had been killed on Tonga, but those reports could not be immediately verified.
Officials and rescue teams worked throughout Wednesday to assess the damage and to begin relief efforts, and they said witnesses had seen heavy destruction in the southern parts of Samoa and American Samoa, a United States territory with about 60,000 residents.
Samoa, governed by New Zealand until gaining its independence in 1962, has a population of 180,000 spread across its islands. Upolu, the second largest of the islands, has numerous resorts and guesthouses along its southern shores, and initial reports from the coast described widespread destruction.
A Red Cross worker, Sati Young, speaking to Radio New Zealand, said waves 10 feet high had flattened beachside resorts on Upolu and that residents told him the tourist zone of Lalomanu had been crushed by a 33-foot wall of water. Graeme Ansell, a New Zealander, told the radio station that every building had been destroyed in the village of Faofao Beach Fales on Upolu’s southeastern coast.
“There’s not a building standing,” he said. “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 around here.”
Damaged telephone lines on both islands hampered efforts to count the casualties and obtain comprehensive damage assessments. The earthquake struck below the ocean about 120 miles southwest of American Samoa and 125 miles south of Samoa, and it was centered only 11 miles below the seabed, according to the geological agency.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center at Ewa Beach, Hawaii, raised a regionwide alert that extended from American Samoa to New Zealand, though minimal damage was reported elsewhere.
On Wednesday morning, the Japan Meteorological Agency issued a tsunami advisory for the entire eastern coast of Japan. The advisory carried warnings of high waves, but by early evening the agency scaled back the advisory to parts of southern Japan, Okinawa and northern Hokkaido.
Tsunami awareness is relatively high in this earthquake-prone part of the world, particularly after the devastating earthquake and tsunami on Dec. 26, 2004, which killed 227,898 people around the Indian Ocean, according to the United States Geological Survey.
Both Samoan islands are just east of the international date line, which is why it was early Tuesday morning when the quake occurred, but it was already early Wednesday in Japan, China and Australia.