[Peter Paul Media] — A magnitude 8.0 earthquake off the coast of Samoa triggered a massive tsunami early Tuesday causing the destruction of entire villages, U.S. federal agencies confirmed Tuesday.
The earthquake was recorded at 6:48 a.m. local time [1:48 p.m. EDT] at an ocean depth of 33 kilometres., the U.S. Geological Survey [USGS] said.
After several tense hours, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre cancelled all warnings just before 6:00 p.m. EDT with no major incidents reported.
At least 37 people were reported dead in Samoa — a toll which is expected to rise as casualties arrive at local hospitals. Reuters, citing an official, said the toll in Western Samoa could reach 100 people.
Two South Koreans were also killed and another is still missing, Xinhua reported. One Australian was reported dead and six others are missing, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation said.
In the Kingdom of Tonga, an archipelago in the South Pacific Ocean, coastal damage was reported following 13 foot-waves, the AP said. On the island of Niuatoputapu, there were 10 reported deaths, the Tongan government said.
The Samoan capital, Apia, was evacuated as authorities scrambled to survey the damage. Radio New Zealand quoted residents saying entire villages were destroyed in Samoa’s southeast and southwest coasts. Casualties were reported on Upolu Island to the east and west of Apia — the hardest hit areas following the quake.
In Pago Pago, the capital of American Samoa, a witness told the Associated Press [AP] that a storm surge travelled 100 yards inland before receding. Tide stations near Pago Pago registered wave heights of 5.1 feet.
Radio New Zealand [RNZ] correspondent Fili Sagapolutele said he also “witnessed looting in one of the stores [in Pago Pago] and that is a very terrible thing to happen at this time.”
The Pago Pago International Airport was closed by the Federal Aviation Administration following damage to the runway, Hawaii’s KGMB9 reported. American Samoa has a population of just over 65,628 people while Pago Pago’s population is just over 5,000 people.
Earthquakes occur in the Asia-Pacific area regularly due to faults under the vast ocean. “The broad scale Australia/Pacific plate boundary is one of the most active earthquake regions in the world,” the USGS said on its website.
People in the Asia-Pacific region have been on high alert since the December 2004 tsunami killed more that 220,000 people in Southeast Asia. That tsunami followed an undersea earthquake west of Indonesia’s Java region.
U.S. President Barack Obama has since declared a federal disaster, enabling federal funding and assistance for Samoa following the devastation.