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Pacific tsunami: Aid efforts begin in Samoa

As the US prepared to dispatch emergency relief to American Samoa, Australia and New Zealand focused their aid efforts on Samoa.

By Kathy MarksContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / September 30, 2009

Source: USGS, dpa

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Sydney, Australia

Sulili Dusi was jolted awake just before 7 a.m. local time Tuesday by a powerful earthquake that shook the walls of her house on Samoa's main island, Upolu. She and her family ran outside to find the trees trembling, too, she told Radio New Zealand. They fled to higher ground before a series of tidal waves roared ashore. Other residents of Samoa, neighboring American Samoa, and Tonga were not so fortunate. [Editor's note: The original version misidentified the date of the earthquake.]

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More than 100 people, including foreign tourists, are thought to have died in the South Pacific after the magnitude 8.3 offshore quake triggered a tsunami, sending walls of water crashing into nearby islands. At least 30 are confirmed dead in American Samoa, where workers at a fish-canning factory in the capital, Pago Pago, say they had only three minutes' warning before the devastating waves struck.

In Samoa, the independent nation formerly known as Western Samoa, survivors claim that they, too, received little or no warning. One woman, who gave her name only as Ngutu, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that after the earth stopped moving, "everyone was just walking around normal – curious about what was going to happen."

Then, she said, a wave "tall as the sky" smashed into her little coastal village, Ulutogia. "Everyone just started running inland towards the hills, running for our lives."

Samoa: one of the best-prepared Pacific island countries?

Samoa is considered one of the best-prepared countries in the quake-prone region, with a newly installed tsunami alert system that was successfully tested earlier this year. Earth tremors are supposed to set off sirens, while tsunami warnings are broadcast on local radio and sent as text messages.

Yesterday, though, the waves were only six or seven minutes behind the quake, which sparked a Pacific-wide alert as far as Hawaii. "If things happen so quickly, there's not a lot you can do," says Peter Muller, the regional disaster response adviser to the United Nations' Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.