Series of quakes shake Vanuatu

BY MARK STEVENS AND ANNA CHALMERS
Last updated 17:54 08/10/2009
Samoans flee
JOHN SELKIRK

ISLANDERS FLEE: Samoans head to high ground after a tsunami warning sparked by a series of earthquakes off Vanuatu.

Port Vila
WILSON TOA
ALERT: Tourists and locals in Port Vila move to higher ground during the tsunami warning this morning. All schools, banks and offices were closed and boats were taken out of the harbour.
Vanuatu quake
Stuff.co.nz
EPICENTRE: The magnitude 7.8 quake off Vanuatu.

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NZ has cancelled its tsunami warning triggered by a series of powerful earthquakes off Santo, Vanuatu, on Thursday.

Magnitude 7.8 and 7.1 quakes hit around 11am NZ time, followed by a magnitude 7.3 quake around an hour later. 

Scenes of panic have been reported in Vanuatu after thel earthquakes sparked a tsunami warning. "People are hysterical, trying to find out what's going on and contacting family members. Phone lines are going down as a result," an official with aid group CARE Australia told Agence France Presse.

Epicentres were located around 373 km north-northwest of Santo, Vanuatu, at a depth of 35 km, the US Geological Survey said. Since then a series of aftershocks have rocked the region, ranging between 5.1 to 6.9 magnitude.

By 3.15pm this afternoon (NZ time) there had been nine earthquakes around Vanuatu and the nearby Santa Cruz Islands since the 7.8 quake struck, little more than four hours earlier.

Sea level readings indicated the quakes generated a tiny (4cm) tsunami, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre said. 

The centre cancelled all warnings shortly after 1pm NZ time, about two hours after the first alerts were issued.

However, Civil Defence in New Zealand maintained its tsunami threat warning until 4.30pm NZ time. It still advised the public to be cautious of continuing strong currents into the early evening.

Currents could be particularly strong between Hokitika and Karamea, Civil Defence said.

Earlier, tsunami warnings of varying levels were in effect for Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Tuvalu, New Caledonia, Fiji, Kiribati, Kosrae, Wallis-Futuna, Howland-Baker, Marshall Islands, Tokelau, Kermadec Islands, Pohnpei, New Zealand, Samoa, American Samoa, Tonga, Australia, Niue, Cook Islands, Chuuk, Indonesia, Wake Islands, Jarvis Islands, Belau, Midway Islands, French Polynesia, Hawaii, and Philippines.

The quakes come just over a week after the tsunami which killed 178 people in the Samoas and Tonga.

VANUATU: LONG ROLLING MOTION

Apex Garden Hotel owner Valiant Leung said it was the biggest earthquake he had experienced in his 26 years on the island of Santo. But rather than being a violent quake, it was a long rolling motion.

"It was like being on a boat."

The hotel was just a few hundred metres from the beach but there was confusion about the tsunami warning. "We have no knowledge about what direction the tsunami is [possibly] coming."

He said the earthquake lasted several minutes and had frightened guests, many of whom had fled to higher ground.

Vanuatu-based helicopter pilot Jason Schellaars, said numerous boats were being taken from their moorings at Port Vila and were heading to sea.

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"I'm looking at them all now. There's a fair rush on to get out," Mr Schellaars said.

"No-one else seems too panicked to be honest. There's quite a crowd has come down to the water's edge to see if there's a wave".

Bishop Nathan Tome from the Anglican Church of Melanesia in Vanuatu said locals had been warned to go to higher ground.

Living on an island not far from the earthquake's epicentre, Bishop Tome said residents on smaller islands may not get adequate warning as contact was "very hard" to make.

He said residents were "certainly" concerned about the possibility of a tsunami.

New Zealand consular officer Shane Coleman at the High Commission at Port Vila, in Vanuatu, said he felt a "long and lazy" quake.

"The events in Samoa have taken the complacency out of people here," Mr Coleman said.

A spokeswoman from Hotel Santo, in Luganville, said people were worried, but had not evacuated. She had lived in Vanuatu for 30 years.

"We're a bit anxious, but fine ... it was the biggest one I've felt here in a long time," she said.

"It was slow, but went on for quite a few seconds … It was very slow, gentle, everything just moved and went on. It wasn't sharp."

The spokeswoman was aware of the tsunami alert, but only through internet reports of the quake.

Wendy who runs the Seachange Resort in Port Vila said the quake was minor and they had not evacuated guests.

"The quake that we had here, it was no difference from anything else. It was a two second blip."

SAMOA

Warning sirens sounded in Apia, the capital of tsunami-ravaged Samoa, shortly after 1pm NZ time.

Stuff.co.nz reporter Michael Field said church bells were rung and people also tooted their car horns to warn locals, who began running from the market to make higher ground.

A local schoolboy said: "Our teacher told us to go the hills and stay there."

Small boats were hurriedly leaving Apia harbour.

The sirens created gridlock on Apia's streets. Field said had a tsunami eventuated, hundreds of people would have been left in low-lying areas of the town.

FIJI

Guests at the Outrigger on the Lagoon hotel on Fiji's coral coast were moved up to the third floor in case a tsunami arrived.

Spokeswoman Teresa Nailiko said the tsunami was already supposed to have arrived but "the sea is just normal like this morning".

"Everyone is just being calm because we've been updated," she said.

Damian O'Donell, resident manager at Shangri La hotel said 1200 guests had been evacuated to higher ground, about 15m above sea level, he said.

"They're having a lot of fun actually, which is often the case in these things," he said.

He expected they would be up there for some time.

A Suva-based resident said there was a "very high" level of awareness about the tsunami.

"We've got people that already up in the hills." She said there was a "vast difference" in how the tsunami warning was being handled today compared with last week, following the Samoan quake.

NEW CALEDONIA

Authorities in the New Caledonia evacuated people from the island's eastern shore and from the nearby Loyalty Islands to higher ground.

 - with AP, Reuters and Dominion Post

- Stuff

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