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Tsunami deaths likely to rise in Pacific islands

    Relief workers in American Samoa and Samoa searched for survivors on Thursday after a series of tsunamis smashed into the tiny Pacific islands, killing more than 100 people, flattening villages and leaving thousands homeless.

Television images showed homes ripped apart, cars submerged in the sea or lodged in trees and large fishing boats hurled ashore by the

waves generated by an 8.0 magnitude earthquake southwest of American Samoa, a U.S. territory.

Some victims were washed out to sea by waves that reached at least 6 meters (20 feet) high.

At least 83 people were killed in Samoa, with no clear picture of how many were still unaccounted for, Asuegalia Mulipola, assistant chief executive of Samoa's Disaster Management Office, told Reuters.

Mulipola said at least 170 to 180 people were injured, with a more complete toll expected later in the day.

Togiola Tulafono, governor of American Samoa, said at least 24 people were killed there and 50 injured, with the southern portion of the main island of Tutuila "devastated." The toll may rise as rescuers search buildings, including a seniors' center.

Officials in the neighboring island nation of Tonga confirmed seven people killed there and three missing. The two Samoas and Tonga have a combined population of about 400,000 people and rely on subsistence agriculture, fishing and tourism.

The wave came about 200 meters (656 feet) onshore, destroying everything in its path, said Tim Wimborne, a Reuters photographer traveling on the south coast of Upolu in Samoa.

"Where it has come in, it's devastated the place, snapping trees off at the bases, houses are gone, foundations moved and concrete walls pushed over," he said. "There's nothing left standing at all."

3,000 LEFT HOMELESS

Locals were beginning to clean up, searching the tangle of wreckage along the coastline for their possessions, Wimborne said. The work of shifting heavy debris such as roofs and walls was being done by hand, with little heavy machinery available.

Radio New Zealand, quoting Samoan disaster authorities, said 32,000 people were affected by the tsunami, with some 3,000 left homeless.

A second earthquake, of 7.9 magnitude, hit the Indonesian island of Sumatra late on Wednesday, prompting the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center to issue a tsunami watch for Indonesia, India, Thailand and Malaysia.

The prime minister of Samoa, Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, said the death toll in his nation was expected to rise.

"It was fortunate ... the tsunami struck when it was daylight and the tide was also low," he told Reuters. "If it had come in the dark and the tide was high, the number of people who died would be much higher."

U.S. President Barack Obama declared a major disaster in American Samoa and ordered federal aid to help the recovery.

A U.S. C-130 transport plane arrived in American Samoa on Thursday as part of an air bridge to bring in relief workers and supplies. The Navy's USS Ingraham was en route with an estimated arrival time of 7 p.m. EDT on Thursday.

'DEVASTATED'

An Australian emergency medical team arrived in Samoa early on Thursday with surgeons, anesthetists and paramedics to help the overstretched local hospital, Australian Aid Minister Bob McMullan said, while an air force transport with emergency supplies, tents and medical equipment would depart later in the day.

McMullan said at least three Australians had died in the tsunami and earthquake, which was still sending aftershocks through the region on Thursday.

Residents in Pago Pago, the main village in American Samoa, were returning to their homes after fleeing to higher ground to avoid the waves that pounded buildings, including the local fish cannery, and unearthed a cemetery.

"They're coming back but there is some fear because of some rumors of a (tsunami) warning coming down from Honolulu," said Nick Faasala, a U.S. postal worker who spoke by telephone from Pago Pago's Showers of Blessing radio station.

Red Cross teams had mobilized more than 100 emergency workers who were collecting coconuts to help meet early food and water needs in the affected Pacific islands, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said.

Shortly after radio warnings about a tsunami were issued in the islands, waves started crashing into Pago Pago and villages and resorts on the southern coasts, witnesses said.

Mulipola said there were reports of bodies covered in the sand driven onshore by the waves.

Wendy Booth, owner of the Sea Breeze on Upolu, said she and her husband were almost washed away when the waves destroyed their resort and carried its restaurant out to sea.

"The second wave hit and came up through the floor, pushed out the back door and threw us outside," she told Fairfax Radio Network in Australia, adding the couple held onto each other and a handrail as parts of their resort disintegrated.

Small tsunamis also reached New Zealand, Hawaii and Japan.

An Indian Ocean tsunami on December 26, 2004 -- which killed about 230,000 people in 11 countries -- is the worst on record.

(powered by: Reuters)

 

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