Tsunami, earthquake deaths in Solomons

KIRSTY JOHNSTON, NICOLE PRYOR AND KELSEY FLETCHER
Last updated 21:35 06/02/2013

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A tsunami has damaged dozens of homes and likely killed several people in the Solomon Islands following a powerful earthquake, however Civil Defence officials say the threat to most parts of New Zealand has passed.

The magnitude 8.0 earthquake struck east of the Solomon Islands at 2.12pm (NZT) on Wednesday, prompting tsunami warnings across the Pacific.


Do you know of anyone in the quake-hit area? Email us at newstips@stuff.co.nz


Solomons officials reported two 1.5-metre waves hit the western side of Santa Cruz Island, damaging around 50 homes and properties, said George Herming, a spokesman for the prime minister.

Many villagers had headed to higher ground as a precaution, he said.

Solomon Islands Police Commissioner John Lansley said local police patrols had reported that several people were presumed dead, though the reports were still being verified.

"Sadly, we believe some people have lost their lives," he said. "At the moment we potentially know of four, but there may of course be more."

Four villages on Santa Cruz were impacted by the waves, with two facing severe damage, Lansley said. Other areas of the Solomons did not appear to have been seriously affected.

The quake was initially reported as 5.8km deep, but this was later revised to 33km, according to information provided by Civil Defence. The epicentre was 347km east of Kira Kira in the Solomon Islands.

Several large aftershocks, ranging between 5.2 to 6.6 in magnitude, have hit since the initial quake.

NEW ZEALAND THREAT WARNING CANCELLED

Civil Defence officials tonight said the tsunami threat to most areas of New Zealand's coast had passed. However, a minor threat still remained on the west coast, from Taranaki to Milford Sound, for the next 48 hours.

Officials warned there may be unusual water conditions, such as local tidal surges and strong currents, especially during the early hours of Thursday. People should exercise caution and discretion before entering the water or going out in small boats.

HOMES DESTROYED IN SOLOMONS

Richard Dapo, a school principal on an island near Santa Cruz, said he lives inland but has been fielding calls from families on the coast whose homes have been damaged by the waves.

"I try to tell the people living on the coastline, 'Move inland, find a higher place. Make sure to keep away from the sea. Watch out for waves,"' he said.

He said he's heard the waves have swamped some smaller islands, although he's not aware of any deaths or serious injuries at this point. He said it's difficult to contact people because cellphone coverage is patchy in the region.

Andrew Catford, the country director for the aid organisation World Vision, who is based in Honiara, said he started getting reports of a tsunami shortly after the quake.
 
About 20 staff members from the World Vision team are based in Temotu province, the area worst affected. They called to say that just five or ten minutes after the earthquake, a 1m wave began surging from the coast.
 
It rolled through four low-lying villages, swamping a school and inundating the Lata airfield, Catford said.
 
Another village in the province of Makira Ullawa was also affected.
 
“There was one report of a school being flooded there but we’re yet to get confirmation,” he said.
 
Catford said there were reports that around 100 houses in the area had been destroyed.
 
The water has since subsided. Catford said his agency was now working with police and other officials to asses the damage.
 
Medical staff had arrived in Lata, but so far there were no reports of injuries, Catford said.

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In Honiara, the warnings had prompted residents to flee for higher ground.

"People are still standing on the hills outside of Honiara just looking out over the water, trying to observe if there is a wave coming in," said Herming, the prime minister's spokesman.

Atenia Tahu, who works for the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation in Honiara, said most people were remaining calm.

"People around the coast and in the capital are ringing in and trying to get information from us and the National Disaster Office and are slowly moving up to higher ground," Tahu said. "But panic? No, no, no, people are not panicking."

Dr Rooney Jagilly, the medical superintendent at the National Referral Hospital in Honiara, said the hospital asked about half its 200 patients to leave and stay with family or friends as a precautionary measure because the hospital is located near the shoreline. Those patients who weren't mobile enough to move stayed, but the hospital remained ready to evacuate them.

Jagilly said there had been no flooding and he hoped the hospital would return to normal Thursday. He said his staff was ready to mobilise to Santa Cruz because the small hospital there has no doctor after the previous one died recently.

Hundreds of people in Fiji's capital, Suva, have from coastal areas. There are reported to be chaotic scenes of traffic jams in the city as people head away from the sea front. All government offices have closed.

A manager at the Novotel Hotel in Nadi said students in Fiji were sent home from school at the advice of the Fijian Education Ministry after the threat was announced.

The manager said guests would remain in the hotel, which is located near the airport, until further information was released.

"We are in the safest location," he said.

"At this point and time we don't want to create panic."

An official at the disaster management office in Vanuatu said there were no reports of damage or injuries there.

A tsunami threat warning issued by the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre for a number of Pacific Island countries was cancelled just before 5pm.

More than 50 people were killed and thousands lost their homes in April 2007 when a magnitude 8.1 quake hit the western Solomon Islands, sending waves crashing into coastal villages.

The Solomons comprise more than 200 islands with a population of about 552,000 people. They lie on the "Ring of Fire" - an arc of earthquake and volcanic zones that stretches around the Pacific Rim and where about 90 per cent of the world's quakes occur.

The US Geological Survey said the quake struck 81 kilometres west of Lata, at a depth of 5.8 kilometres.

This story has been corrected. An earlier version wrongly stated the epicenter being off the coast of Ecuador.

- Stuff.co.nz, AP and Reuters

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