An 8.0-magnitude earthquake, off the coast of Samoa, has resulted in a tsunami that came ashore just minutes after warnings were issued. Many areas received no warning, and officials now say at least 99 people have died. They also estimate the death toll could rise steadily as remote areas are accessed and the full scale of the tsunami is better understood and a comprehensive count of missing persons can be made.
It is thought the number of deaths resulted mainly from the problem of delivering immediate emergency warnings to remote areas. Personnel, infrastructure and media contacts are all lacking in certain parts of the island nation, which left whole areas without foreknowledge of the coming tsunami.
The New York Times reported that villages in both Samoa and American Samoa were destroyed, again citing the remote areas where victims simply did not have warning of the rapidly approaching disaster. The Times reported also that “The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center at Ewa Beach, Hawaii, raised a regionwide alert that extended from American Samoa to New Zealand, though minimal damage was reported elsewhere.”
The warnings appeared to help prevent injury in some areas. Residents in the Samoan capital of Apia said emergency officials fanned out across the city to warn of the Tsunami Warning Center’s first alerts, while staff at Aggie Grey’s, a historic hotel along the waterfront, said they quickly moved guests to upper levels to escape danger.
“There were sirens and emergency workers all over the place, pestering people to walk up the hill,” said Cherelle Jackson, a resident. But much of the worst danger “was on the other side of the island,” she said, and informing residents in those areas, which are less densely populated, was much harder. In some places, she and others said, the messages didn’t get through.
Samoa has a system in place to warn of tsunami danger by text message, but reports suggest the sms warnings may not have been generated in certain parts of the country. The WSJ’s reporting also notes anecdotal reports of residents saying some radio stations never interrupted their programming with any emergency warnings.
The Journal also reports the close call that two tourists from Denmark experienced, when warnings did not come. The couple felt the quake, but received no warning of tsunami danger. But about 10 minutes after the initial tremor, the witness’ girlfriend noticed a massive wave and suggested they should flee to higher ground.
As Patrick Barta reported, for the Journal:
“When you looked back you could see a three- to four-meter wall of water behind you,” he said. They ran to a hill about 100 to 150 meters away and escaped without major injury, though they lost their passports, laptops and other possessions.
Several other guests were killed, he said, including a Brazilian woman who was staying in an adjacent villa and a three-year old child of a British man there. More than a dozen other residents in the area were killed as well, and the resort was largely destroyed, he said.
Emergency response officials from the region said the warnings did appear to go out, but were either slow in being put in motion or simply could not be any more effective in preventing death and destruction, with so short a window of time to reach all those at risk. A rescue effort is ongoing, including helicopters, both for speed and due to flooding that resulted from the wave, which may have reached as high as 10 meters according to some reports.