HONIARA (Reuters) - The Solomon Islands declared a state of emergency after an earthquake and a tsunami struck, flattening villages causing widespread panic and killing at least 20 people with the toll expected to rise.
A powerful magnitude 8.0 earthquake and tsunami hit the Solomons on Monday, and people from Honiara to Australia fled for the safety of higher ground.
The shallow quake hit Gizo island, northwest of the Solomons capital Honiara, hardest. It damaged shops, schools and a hospital on the low-lying waterfront, while the following tsunami wave sucked dozens of houses into the sea.
“There are a lot of people who are without shelter. We understand that a lot of villages in other areas of the Western Province and Choiseul Province were totally wiped out,” Solomons National Disaster Council chairman Fred Fakari told Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio on Tuesday.
Fakari said disaster teams and international peacekeepers in the country had not yet reached the area and were hoping to arrive in Gizo on Tuesday by helicopter to begin a full damage assessment.
Western Province Premier Alex Lokopio said an estimated 4,000 people were sheltering in the hills amid warnings that quake aftershocks could generate more tsunami waves in coming days. Islanders were in desperate need of water, food and tents, he said.
“For the next three days or four days, if there is not anything coming from Honiara or any other parts of the world, there are people here in Gizo who will be sitting down underneath the trees day and night,” Lokopio said.
Fakari said the death toll was still unknown, but initial estimates pointed to at least 20 dead and more still missing.
“We expect the number to rise, the toll to rise, as we reconcile all our reports and get down on the ground,” he said.
“We could not get reports from the more remote parts of the islands. People were too frightened to go back to their villages.”
The quake struck 350 km (220 miles) northwest of Honiara and sparked a tsunami alert around the Pacific.
Beaches along Australia’s east coast were closed and ferry services halted in Sydney Harbor amid fears of a repeat of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Roads in Australia’s north were gridlocked as residents fled the coast.
The alert was lifted about nine hours later, with damage confined to the immediate area around the quake.
Solomons Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s government declared a state of emergency on Monday.
“My heart goes out to all of you in this very trying time,” Sogavare said in a national radio address.
Government and Red Cross disaster teams are taking tents and supplies to the affected area. Australia, which said the wave also hit the western Papua New Guinea island of Bougainville, has offered A$2 million ($1.6 million) in aid.
The United Nations said it had a full Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) team on standby for deployment to the Solomons.
Kevin McCue, the Director of the Australian Seismological Center, said there was a strong chance more quakes would follow in the coming days on an undersea trench west of the Solomons.
“This region typically has double earthquakes, six sets of them since 1907,” McCue said, adding residents and rescue teams should be on alert for more quakes of up to magnitude 7.5.
The Solomon Islands lie on the so-called Pacific “Ring of Fire” where volcanic activity and earthquakes are fairly common.
The islands are popular with international travelers for scuba diving. Most homes in the mountainous islands are constructed of timber and bamboo, with villagers relying on fishing and logging for employment.
Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols in New York