Asia Crisis

Death toll in tsunamis nears 200, could go higher

* Death toll may rise on outlying islands

* Villages vanished, washed away

* Generators, medical supplies sought

SIUMU, Samoa, Oct 1 (Reuters) - Rescuers fished bloated corpses from the South Pacific off Samoa and pulled bodies from the mud and twisted rubble of devastated islands as the death toll from a series of tsunamis neared 200 on Thursday.

Officials feared it could go much higher.

A spotter aircraft circled the ocean looking for bodies, dropping smoke flares to pinpoint their location for a boat to collect. Within an hour five were hauled ashore.

The confirmed death toll stood at 149 in Samoa, 31 on American Samoa and nine on neighboring Tonga, but officials feared that whole towns had been destroyed on outlying islands and hundreds of people remained missing.

Some 20 villages were destroyed in Samoa and scores flattened in nearby American Samoa.

"Everybody is in a state of shock," Representative Eni F.H. Faleomavaega, who arrived on the U.S. territory of American Samoa on Wednesday night, told Reuters in a telephone interview. "Many families are still up on high ground. They don't want to come down. We're still having tremors (from the earthquake)."

The congressman said many survivors had no homes to return to and were being given shelter in churches.

Four powerful tsunamis generated by a strong magnitude 8.0 undersea earthquake crashed into the islands on Tuesday, laying waste to a paradise of palm trees, resorts and pristine beaches. The waves, at least 6 metres (20 feet) high, ripped buildings apart and washed people out to sea, some still in their beds, survivors said.

"We have more bodies that are being found in the wreckage and being excavated and being brought to the hospital so we expect that the death toll will rise," said Dr David Bouslough at the main hospital in Pago Pago, capital of American Samoa.


One mother watched in horror as her three children playing in the sand were swept away. Many died after being crushed by debris swirling in the floodwaters.

Two refrigerated shipping containers, on grass behind the main hospital in the Samoan capital Apia, served as makeshift morgues after the hospital morgue could accept no more corpses.

Along the southern coast of Samoa's main island Upolu, which bore the brunt of the tsunamis, palm trees had nearly all been flattened, snapped like twigs by the force of the ocean.

A layer of mud and sand covered many shattered buildings and boats and cars hung from trees, as survivors scavenged the debris. Survivors said people were collecting dead fish, washed ashore by the waves, to feed their families.

Sione Lousiale Kava, petroleum officer for the American Samoa government, said whole villages had disappeared.

"We've seen pick-up trucks carrying the dead ... back to town," New Zealand tourist Fotu Becerra said. "We were shocked when we saw the first one but after three hours, it seemed normal."

U.S. President Barack Obama declared a major disaster in American Samoa and ordered federal aid to help the recovery.

Federal Emergency Management Administration chief Craig Fugate told reporters in a telephone briefing that the American Samoa governor and the FEMA disaster coordinating officer had toured the area by air to view the damage.

"Based upon that the governor has asked us to prioritize right now additional generator support and additional medical supplies, which are currently being tasked to go out there," he said.

Fugate said FEMA had 140 people on the ground in American Samoa, including members of the U.S. Coast Guard, officials of the Federal Coordinating Officer's Incident Management Team, members of the Hawaiian National Guard and others.


He said FEMA had supplies on the ground for the disaster responders and the general public, including the military's standard field rations as well as generators and more than nine shipping pallets loaded with medical supplies.

The waves hit early in the morning, almost without warning, leaving many villagers little chance to outrun waters surging 200 metres (650 feet) inland.

Radio New Zealand, quoting disaster authorities, said 32,000 people had been affected, with some 3,000 left homeless.

"The devastation is frightening. Every family has been affected. One of my staff members has lost 13 members of her family," said Adimaimalaga Tafunai, director of Women in Business Development Inc (WIBDI) in Apia.

The worst tsunami on record in the Indian Ocean, on Dec. 26, 2004, killed about 230,000 people in 11 countries. (Additional reporting by Baris Atayman in Samoa, Adrian Bathgate and Mantik Kusjanto in Wellington, Rob Taylor and James Grubel in Canberra and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles) (Writing by Dan Whitcomb, editing by Cynthia Osterman)