HONIARA (Reuters) - A humanitarian crisis triggered by a huge earthquake and tsunami threatened thousands of homeless people in the Solomon Islands on Tuesday as aid began to trickle in and powerful aftershocks rattled the country.
After the first disaster teams reached hard-hit Western and Choiseul Provinces, Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare said aerial patrols had reported “massive and widespread” destruction from Monday’s magnitude 8.0 quake and tsunami.
Aerial pictures showed flattened homes and twisted iron roofs on the ground all along the remote coastline as people wandered seemingly aimlessly on roads clogged by debris and boats hurled ashore by powerful waves up to 10 meters high.
The first priority of rescue teams, Sogavare said, would be to restore communications with affected areas amid official estimates that 22 people had been killed and 5,409 left homeless. The death toll was expected to rise.
“We will be needing a mobile hospital facility and I think Australia and New Zealand have kindly offered to come forward on that,” Sogavare said.
Australian aid agency Caritas said infection would set in quickly among those injured, with antibiotics in short supply and doctors currently tending to survivors at a hilltop aid station near Gizo, the worst affected town.
“Many water tanks have been damaged, and we also have a problem with food supplies. The gardens have been inundated, so there is a problem with fresh food,” Caritas spokeswoman Liz Stone told Australian radio.
Thousands of villagers remained on high ground as more than 27 aftershocks, including a magnitude 6.2 quake, shook the region and scientists warned more tsunamis could follow.
With a state of emergency in force, a police patrol boat carrying food and emergency supplies arrived in Gizo, where schools and a hospital were damaged, and dozens of houses sucked into the sea. At least 13 villages were feared destroyed.
“There are vast tracts of land, many, many islands and very complicated terrain,” Deputy Solomons Police Commissioner Peter Marshall told reporters.
The region around Gizo is popular with international tourists and scuba divers for its corals. A New Zealand resident was among the dead, New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark said.
Gizo dive shop owner Danny Kennedy said workers were trying to clear roads and the local airport of debris to allow military aid flights to bring in tents, medical supplies and food.
“It’s basically just houses stacked on top of one another, roofing iron. It’s still quite a mess,” he told Reuters. “One village on Simbo was completely wiped out. The entire village is gone and where the people are we have no idea.”
Kennedy said villagers were too traumatized to search homes to find who might be buried under the rubble of their houses and villages, or to use traditional canoes to assess damage.
Most people in the low-lying town of 20,000 rely on fishing or logging for jobs. Many homes were built of timber and bamboo, making them particularly vulnerable.
The majority of Solomon Islanders live on subsistence agriculture with less than a quarter of the population having paid jobs. In 2006 the country had a GDP of $322 million.
Gizo is the second largest town and is surrounded by smaller islands, including Kennedy Island, named after late U.S. president John F. Kennedy, who swam to safety there after his navy patrol boat was rammed in World War Two.
The Solomons Red Cross said about 2,000 Gizo residents were homeless, while 500 houses might have been damaged or destroyed. Other estimates said more than 900 homes had been leveled.
A bishop and three worshippers were killed when the tsunami struck the island of Simbo during a church ordination, the United Church said.
In neighboring Papua New Guinea, authorities were investigating reports that a tsunami had swept away a family of five in the PNG province of Milne Bay.
The quake struck 350 km (220 miles) northwest of Honiara and sparked a tsunami alert around the Pacific.
Government and Red Cross disaster teams are taking tents and supplies to the affected area. Australia has offered A$2 million ($1.6 million) in aid, while New Zealand offered NZ$500,000 ($360,000) and sent an air force plane laden with supplies, including water containers, blankets, tarpaulins, food and lamps.
The United Nations said it had a full Disaster Assessment and Coordination team on standby for deployment to the Solomons.
The Solomon Islands lie on the so-called Pacific “Ring of Fire” where volcanic activity and earthquakes are fairly common.
Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols in New York and James Grubel in Canberra