A powerful tsunami sent walls of water shooting onto the islands of American Samoa and Samoa on Tuesday, wiping away entire villages and claiming at least 34 lives and possibly as many as 120. Authorities in neighboring Tonga feared many were killed there as well, after a 13-foot wave crashed into the coast.
With the death toll expected to rise, United States President Barack Obama declared the tsunami a major disaster and dispatched a C-130 cargo plane to American Samoa, an US territory, to deliver relief aid.
Hawaii was spared from the waves, but a tsunami advisory has been put in effect for California, where waters could rise by up to 60 cm (24 in) along a strip of coast from Santa Cruz to San Francisco. Authorities, however, do not expect any major damage in California, according to the Bay Area’s Kron 4 television website.
According to eyewitness reports, a series of four crushing waves – some reportedly 15 feet high – slammed into the capital of American Samoa sometime after 7 a.m., whipping houses and cars out to sea and burying bodies under mounds of sand, reports Reuters. The entire southern side of the island was reported to be devastated.
The governor of America Samoa, Togiola T.A. Tulafono, reported extensive damage to the western and southern sides of the island, and said the damaged roads were hampering rescue efforts, reports the Associated Press.
Some 65,000 people inhabit the island of American Samoa, and about 220,000 live on Samoa. Police on both islands were working to move people to higher ground.
Foreign governments, meanwhile, including the US, New Zealand, and Australia, were rushing to send aid to the ravaged areas. New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Bill English, reported that some of his country’s Air Force planes were already on the way to the area. And Australian authorities were coordinating with New Zealand to dispatch emergency relief personnel and supplies, reports the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
President Obama’s declaration of a major disaster means that federal funds will be made available immediately for the relief effort. The US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was also preparing to send two emergency teams to the region, as well as supplies that had been prepositioned in Hawaii, reports Agence France-Presse.
Eni Faleomavaega, a congressman for American Samoa, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that FEMA had learned valuable lessons from disaster relief during hurricane Katrina that would now be put into effect.
"Well let me just say that we've learned our lesson from Katrina and I'm quite sure we're already making preparations right now to send aircrafts to provide the necessary supplies - food, equipment, whatever's needed," he said.
The Monitor has compiled a list of relief organizations working in the region. To learn how you can help click here.