Quake triggers tsunami in Solomon Islands, at least 8 dead

Up to 4,000 people had fled to a hill behind the town, and may be in need of emergency shelter and other supplies.

tsunami 298 ap (photo credit: AP)
tsunami 298 ap
(photo credit: AP)
A massive undersea earthquake sent a tsunami crashing into the South Pacific nation of Solomon Islands on Monday, destroying at least one town and killing at least eight people, officials said. The Pacific region, from Australia to Hawaii, went on high alert for several hours after the magnitude-8 quake struck between the islands of Bougainville and New Georgia, with beaches closed more than 2,000 kilometers (1,250 miles) away. But the region-wide warnings were downgraded as the danger period passed. There was no repeat of the Dec. 26, 2004 disaster, when a magnitude-9 quake sent massive waves slamming into the coastlines of a dozen countries around the Indian Ocean's rim, killing or leaving missing about 230,000. In the Solomons, residents said a wave several meters (yards) high roared ashore at Gizo, a regional center in the country's west just 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the temblor's epicenter, within five minutes of the bone-rattling earthquake. "There wasn't any warning - the warning was the earth tremors," Alex Lokopio, premier of Western Province, told New Zealand's National Radio. "It shook us very, very strongly and we were frightened, and all of a sudden the sea was rising up." The water "moved toward the island and hit all the houses on the coastal area, and all of their property was washed away to the open sea," he said. He said up to 4,000 people had fled to a hill behind the town, and may be in need of emergency shelter and other supplies. Resident Judith Kennedy told The Associated Press that water "right up to your head" swept through the town. "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). "There are boats in the middle of the road, buildings have completely collapsed and fallen down," he said by mobile phone. A man who answered the telephone at Gizo police station said up to eight people had been killed - including a man, a woman and six children - but the deaths were unconfirmed. The phone cut out before the man could give his name or where the information about the deaths came from. Reports of casualties were varied as communications to the area remained patchy. Julian Mcleod of the National Disaster Management Office in the capital, Honiara, told Sky News only three deaths had been reported, while national police spokesman Mick Spinks told AP there were unconfirmed reports of four deaths. "Our biggest problem is communications, because most of the high-frequency radio system there was submerged," Spinks said. Lokopio said most government offices and other main buildings in downtown Gizo had been badly damaged, along with police stations and at least one hospital. Munda, another town in Western Province, was also believed to be badly damaged, officials and the national broadcaster said, but details were not immediately confirmed. There also were reports that smaller villages, often consisting of wooden shacks, were badly affected. Solomon Islands deputy police commissioner Peter Marshall said a plane would fly over the devastated area later Monday to assess damage. The U.S. Geological Survey said the earthquake struck about 10 kilometers (6 miles) beneath the sea floor about 350 kilometers (215 miles) northwest of Honiara at 7:39 a.m. (2039 GMT Sunday). The Hawaii-based Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued a warning bulletin for the Solomon Islands and neighboring Papua New Guinea, and a lower-level alert for most South Pacific countries and northeastern Australia. The alert was later lifted. Peter Barter, a minister in the Papua New Guinea government responsible for Boungainville, said there were no reports of damage in his country so far. Australian officials closed beaches along the length of the country's east coast, from near the Great Barrier Reef in the north to Sydney and its famous Bondi beach in the south. "We just feel it's best to err on the side of caution," said Warren Young, the chief lifeguard on the Gold Coast, about 2,200 kilometers (1,370 miles) from the quake's epicenter. The tsunami appeared to be localized, with the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center recording a surge of just 15 centimeters (6 inches) in Honiara. Deli Oso, a spokesman for Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, said the quake was felt in Honiara but no damage was done. The Solomon Islands is a poverty-wracked archipelago of more than 200 islands northeast of Australia, with a population of about 552,000 people, that lies on the Pacific Basin's so-called "Ring of Fire," an arc of volcanos and fault lines where quakes frequently happen.