By Keni Lesa And Fili Sagapolutele
APIA, Samoa – A massive tsunami hurled by a powerful earthquake flattened Samoan villages and swept cars and people out to sea, killing at least 99 and leaving dozens missing Wednesday. The toll was expected to rise.
Survivors fled the fast-churning water for higher ground on the South Pacific islands and remained huddled there hours after the quake, with a magnitude between 8.0 and 8.3, struck around dawn Tuesday.
The quake was centered about 125 miles (200 kilometers) from Samoa, an island nation of 180,000 people located about halfway between New Zealand and Hawaii. It was about 120 miles (190 kilometers) from neighboring American Samoa, a U.S. territory that is home to 65,000 people.
Four tsunami waves 15 to 20 feet (4 to 6 meters) high roared ashore on American Samoa, reaching up to a mile (1.5 kilometers) inland, Mike Reynolds, superintendent of the National Park of American Samoa, was quoted as saying by a parks service spokeswoman.
The same day, western Indonesia was rocked by a strong underwater quake, briefly triggering a tsunami alert for countries along the Indian Ocean and sending panicked residents out of their houses. The alert was later canceled.
The Samoan capital, Apia, was virtually deserted by afternoon, with schools and businesses closed. Hours after the waves struck, fresh sirens rang out with another tsunami alert and panicked residents headed for higher ground again, although there was no indication of a new quake.
In American Samoa’s capital of Pago Pago, the streets and fields were filled with ocean debris, mud, overturned cars and several boats as a massive cleanup effort continued into the night. Several buildings in the city — just a few feet above sea level — were flattened. Several areas were expected to be without electricity for up to a month.
In Washington, President Obama has declared a major disaster for American Samoa.
In a statement issued early Wednesday, Obama said he and his wife, Michelle, “will keep those who have lost so much in our thoughts and prayers.”
Hampered by power and communications outages, officials in the South Pacific islands struggled to determine damage and casualties.
Samoan police commissioner Lilo Maiava told The Associated Press that police there had confirmed 63 deaths but that officials were still searching the devastated areas, so the number of deaths might rise soon.
At least 30 people were killed on American Samoa, Gov. Togiola Tulafono said, adding that the toll was expected to rise as emergency crews were recovering bodies overnight.
“I don’t think anybody is going to be spared in this disaster,” said Tulafono, who was in Hawaii for a conference. He added that a member of his extended family was among the dead in the disaster.
Authorities in Tonga confirmed at least six additional people dead in the island nation west of the Samoas, New Zealand’s acting Prime Minister Bill English said. He said Tongan officials told him that four people were missing after the tsunami swept ashore on the northern island of Niua.
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd told Seven Network in Australia that two Australians had died, including a 6-year-old girl. The British Foreign Office said one Briton was missing and presumed dead.
Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi looked shaken Wednesday on board a flight from Auckland, New Zealand, to the Samoan capital of Apia.
“So much has gone. So many people are gone,” he told reporters on board. “I’m so shocked, so saddened by all the loss.”
Malielegaoi said his own village of Lepa was destroyed.
“Thankfully, the alarm sounded on the radio and gave people time to climb to higher ground,” he said. “But not everyone escaped.”
Gov. Tulafono said that because the closeness of the community, “each and every family is going to be affected by someone who’s lost their life.” He spoke to reporters before boarding a Coast Guard C-130 plane in Hawaii to return home. The plane, which also carried officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and aid, was scheduled to arrive at about 7 a.m. local time (2 p.m. EDT; 1800 GMT). The U.S. disaster agency said it was also preparing supplies stored in Hawaii for transport to the island chain.
A New Zealand P3 Orion maritime surveillance airplane had reached the region Wednesday afternoon and had searched for survivors off the coast, he said. It was expected to resume searching at first light.
The Samoa Red Cross estimated that about 15,000 people were affected by the tsunami.
New Zealander Graeme Ansell said the Samoan beach village of Sau Sau Beach Fale was leveled.
“It was very quick. The whole village has been wiped out,” Ansell told New Zealand’s National Radio from a hill near Samoa’s capital, Apia. “There’s not a building standing. We’ve all clambered up hills, and one of our party has a broken leg. There will be people in a great lot of need ’round here.”
Residents in both Samoa and American Samoa reported being shaken awake by the quake early Tuesday, which lasted two to three minutes and was centered about 20 miles (30 kilometers) below the ocean floor. It was followed by at least three large aftershocks of at least 5.6 magnitude.
The quake came Tuesday morning for the Samoas, which lie just east of the international dateline. For Asia-Pacific countries on the other side of the line, it was already Wednesday.
The dominant industry in American Samoa — tuna canneries — was also affected. Chicken of the Sea’s tuna packing plant in American Samoa was forced to close although the facility wasn’t damaged, the San Diego-based company said.
The effects of the tsunami could be felt nearly 5,000 miles away (7,500 kilometers) on a Japanese island, though there were no reports of damage or injuries there.
U.S. officials said strong currents and dangerous waves were forecast from California to Washington state. No major flooding was expected, however. In Los Angeles, lifeguards said they would clear beaches at about 8 p.m.
While the earthquake and tsunami were big, they were not on the same scale of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, said Brian Atwater of the U.S. Geological Survey in Seattle. That tsunami killed more than 230,000 in a dozen countries across Asia.