Thousands Camped Out On Higher Ground In Solomon Islands

Tuesday, April 3rd 2007, 7:24 am
By: News On 6

HONIARA, Solomon Islands (AP) _ Some of the thousands left homeless by a tsunami ventured back into the devastated Solomon Islands town of Gizo Tuesday, picking their way through rickety buildings in search of food and water.

But most were still too scared to leave the hillside, where they have been camped out since a powerful undersea earthquake sent waves up to 30 feet high crashing into the South Pacific country's islands.

At least 28 people had been confirmed dead in the Solomons from Monday's tsunami and quake, measured at a revised magnitude of 8.1 by the U.S. Geological Survey. The victims included a bishop and three worshippers killed when a wave hit a church on the island of Simbo and a New Zealand man who drowned trying to save his mother, who remains missing.

Another five unconfirmed deaths were reported in neighboring Papua New Guinea. Officials said the total was likely to rise once communication with surrounding villages on the island is restored.

``Some settlements have been completely wiped out by the waves,'' Alfred Maesulia, information director in Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare's office, told The Associated Press.

Villagers on Simbo, Choiseul and Ranunga islands also reported deaths and widespread destruction.

Up to 4,000 people were camped on a hill behind Gizo (pronounced GEE-zoh), said Alex Lokopio, premier of Western Province, which includes the town of 7,000. Many were too scared to return to the coast amid more than two dozen aftershocks, including at least four of magnitude-6 or stronger.

The Solomon Islands Red Cross said about 2,000 Gizo residents were left homeless and that about 500 houses were destroyed, noting that ``initial reports from other islands suggest similar or worse levels of damage.''

The first television footage of the devastated region taken by helicopter showed building after tin-and-thatched-roof building collapsed along a muddy foreshore. Men, some shirtless and wearing shorts, picked through the debris. Some buildings leaned awkwardly on broken stilts.

Lokopio said few of the homeless had even basic supplies, and that their situation would turn desperate within days without help.

Danny Kennedy, a dive shop operator, said teams from the hillside camp had ventured into town looking for bottled water and other supplies _ and found a mess.

``Unfortunately a lot of the stores, their cargo has fallen from the higher shelves and covered lower things, and the buildings are quite unstable,'' Kennedy told New Zealand's National Radio.

Deputy police commissioner Peter Marshall said officials would tolerate survivors taking goods until emergency supplies arrived.

``They are desperate times in Gizo,'' he said. ``And we've got to be practical.''

A police patrol boat carrying emergency supplies arrived in Gizo from Honiara, the capital, overnight and three private charters were due on Tuesday. Australian and New Zealand military helicopters, part of an island security force, also were expected to assist with relief.

The quake struck shortly after 7:39 a.m. Monday (4:39 p.m. EDT Sunday) six miles beneath the sea floor, about 25 miles from the western island of Gizo, the USGS said.

The quake set off alarms from Tokyo to Hawaii, testing procedures put in place after the 2004 Indian Ocean disaster that left 230,000 dead or missing in a dozen countries.

But because of Gizo's proximity to the epicenter, the destructive waves hit before an alarm could be sounded.

``There wasn't any warning _ the warning was the earth tremors,'' Lokopio told New Zealand's National Radio. ``It shook us very, very strongly and we were frightened, and all of a sudden the sea was rising up.''

Within five minutes, a wall of water up to 16 feet high plowed into the coast, inundating homes, businesses, a hospital, schools and two police stations, witnesses and officials said. Phone and power lines were downed, and the main airport damaged.

``It was just a noise like an underground explosion,'' Gizo resident Dorothy Parkinson told Australia's Nine Network television. ``The wave came almost instantaneously. Everything that was standing is flattened.''

Maesulia, the prime minister's spokesman, told the Sydney Morning Herald that some coastal villages were struck by waves up to 30 feet tall, although most reported heights of between 9 and 15 feet.

Sogavare declared a national state of emergency and held meetings with the impoverished country's aid donors.

``We were lucky it happened during the day time and the people observed that the sea receded and that that was a sign that something was not right and most people moved to higher ground,'' Sogavare said.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the world body had a humanitarian team ready to deploy to the Solomon Islands and has offered assistance to the government. The Red Cross also announced aid pledges.

More than 200 islands with a population of about 552,000 people make up the Solomon Islands. They lie on the Pacific Basin's so-called ``Ring of Fire,'' an arc of volcanos and fault lines where quakes are frequent.