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Pacific islanders flee as huge quakes prompt tsunami alert

Thu Oct 8 21:59:32 EST 2009
Thu Oct 8 10:59:32 UTC 2009

PORT VILA, Oct 8 AFP - A series of huge earthquakes triggered a tsunami alert over much of the South Pacific on Thursday, sending panicked residents fleeing just days after giant waves killed 184 in the region.

Authorities evacuated thousands of people from coastal areas, sounding sirens and emptying schools and offices, after 7.8, 7.7 and 7.3 quakes struck off Vanuatu from 9:03am on Thursday (0903 AEDT) followed by aftershocks up to 6.6.

Witnesses described chaotic scenes in Vanuatu as residents and tourists reported seeing big waves and rushed away from the coast.

"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 said in the capital Port Vila.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre issued a tsunami warning for some 25 countries and territories stretching as far as Australia, New Zealand and Indonesia, before cancelling it later.

But the quakes generated only a small tsunami, with waves of between three and 10 centimetres recorded by gauges. There were no immediate reports of casualties or damage in Vanuatu or elsewhere.

"A tsunami was generated but it looks like it was not damaging," Brian Yanagi of the International Tsunami Information Centre in Hawaii told AFP.

The alert caused terror in Samoa, just eight days after a wall of water churned up by an 8.0-magnitude earthquake obliterated entire villages and killed 143 people, plus 32 in American Samoa and nine in Tonga.

Thousands of Samoans relived the terror of last week's tsunami as they fled from the ocean, where debris from the disaster still litters the shore, causing traffic jams in populated areas.

"Everyone was running up the mountains, they ran further than the settlements, you could see the panic and fear was still fresh from what happened," Tipi Autagavaia, a journalist for Radio Polynesia said.

Nora Solomona from Lalomalava village on the main Samoan island of Savaii said the new warning was a shock.

"The threat of a tsunami is too real for us to ignore, it's not a joke anymore, I fear for the lives of my children every time this warning will come on," she said.

The drama also came after last week's catastrophic 7.6-magnitude earthquake in Indonesia's Sumatra island which is feared to have killed 3,000 people. Just minutes before the Pacific tremors, a strong 6.7 quake hit the Philippines.

In Vanuatu, the tremors scattered residents and tourists from offices and beaches as word spread of the possible tsunami.

"Our staff have told us that even tourists on the Pacific Dawn cruise ship docked in Port Vila heard people shouting that there was a big wave," said CARE Australia chief Julia Newton-Howes.

In Fiji, police and troops stopped people entering the city centre, while officials ordered hotels to take tourists inland.

New Caledonia officials sounded warning sirens and ordered people away from the coast on the main island and eastern Loyalty Islands, while the low-lying atoll nation of Tuvalu also hurried residents away from the shores.

"We are trying to get those people staying closer to the coast to move inland," said Tuvalu's acting police commissioner Titelu Kauani.

New Zealand was put on "tsunami watch" while Australia said it would be protected from any big waves by the enormous Great Barrier Reef.

Experts said the Pacific and Indonesian quakes were probably not linked despite coming unusually close together.

The "Pacific Ring of Fire" is a hotspot for seismic activity including the 2004 Asian tsunami which killed 220,000.

"The Sumatra earthquakes are too far from the South West Pacific and more probably related to the 2004 earthquake to the north," said Kevin McCue, director of the Australian Seismological Centre.