Death toll rising from tsunami in Solomon Islands

bondibeach.jpgAt least 13 people died in the Solomon Islands Monday after two earthquakes and a tsunami hit the western part of the island-chain nation, the country’s chief spokesman said.Alfred Maesulia, the Solomon Islands’ government spokesman, told CNN that “a lot of people” were missing, which he suggested may be in the range of 10 to 20 people.

Maesulia said it would likely be a day or two before more accurate information is known about the deaths and damage in the scattered island villages.

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare said an 80-year-old woman and a small child were among the dead in the town of Gizo.

It was fortunate that the tsunami hit during daylight hours when the early warning signs of receding tides were noticed, causing people to seek higher ground, Sogavare said.

In the South Choiseul, waves 10 meters high swept through the Sasamunga village northeast of Gizo, destroying villages, food gardens and a hospital, the government’s Web site reported. Health centers and schools in surrounding villages were also devastated, the government said.

Choiseul Premier Jackson Kiloe said villagers from Nukiki, Zepa and Luta villages in Southern Choiseul were searching for missing relatives since the tsunami struck.

Maesulia said the damage in Gizo was caused by the first of the two earthquakes, which the U.S. Geological Survey said registered with a magnitude of 8.0. After the first earthquake, “a strong wave” swept through the Gizo township, Maesulia said, but the major damage to Gizo was caused primarily by the first earthquake.

“All the houses near the sea were flattened,” as water “right up to your head” swept through the town, resident Judith Kennedy told The Associated Press.

“The downtown area is a very big mess from the tsunami and the earthquake,” she said, adding that aftershocks were still being felt several hours later. “A lot of houses have collapsed. The whole town is still shaking.”

Her father, dive shop owner Danny Kennedy, estimated the height of the wave at 10 feet (3 meters).

“I’m driving down the street — there are boats in the middle of the road, buildings have completely collapsed and fallen down,” he told the AP by mobile phone.

Maesulia said the cost of damage was in millions of dollars. The government sent a team to assess the damage in Gizo, a town of about 1,000 people, Maesulia said.

The United States Geological Survey said the first earthquake took place at 6:40 a.m. (2040 GMT on Sunday) and was centered 25 miles south-southeast of Gizo, New Georgia Islands, and 1,330 miles north-northeast of Brisbane, Australia.

A second quake of 6.7 magnitude hit a few minutes later, according to the USGS. It was centered 75 miles west-southwest of Chirovanga, Choiseul, Solomon Islands, and 1,410 miles north of Brisbane, Australia.

The quakes led to a tsunami warning for a huge part of the Pacific. Australia and Indonesia were among the areas named in a warning from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, as were Papua New Guinea and several other islands in the region.

A watch was issued for some other parts of the Pacific, including New Zealand, the Philippines, American Samoa, Guam and Fiji.

Initially, Hawaii was put under an advisory, but not a watch or warning. By evening, the advisory was lifted.

The region-wide warnings were later downgraded, the Associated Press reported. There was no repeat of the 2004 tsunami disaster, when a magnitude 9 quake sent massive waves slamming into countries around the Indian Ocean’s rim, killing or leaving missing about more than 200,00 people.

The Associated Press reported that Australia closed beaches along the length of the country’s east coast, from near the Great Barrier Reef in the north to Sydney and it’s famous Bondi beach in the south.

The Solomon Islands is an archipelago of more than 200 islands northeast of Australia. The AP estimates its population at about 552,000 people. The chain lies on the Pacific Basin’s so-called “Ring of Fire,” an arc of volcanos and fault lines where quakes frequently happen.

The Solomon Islands are popular with international tourists. Most homes in the mountainous islands are constructed of timber and bamboo, with villagers relying on fishing and logging for employment.

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