WSJ - Victims of the tsunami that swept across the South Pacific on Tuesday often had only minutes to escape the deadly waves and in some cases didn't receive alerts of danger, despite years of work to upgrade early-warning systems across the region.
At least 119 people were killed by the tsunami in Samoa, Tonga and the U.S. territory of American Samoa, while dozens were left missing. The tsunami inundated tourist resorts and local villages after an 8.0-magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of Samoa early Tuesday local time.
Authorities warned the death toll could rise significantly over the next few days as the full scale of the disaster -- much of which occurred in remote areas far from large population centers -- is assessed.
At least 83 people were dead in Samoa, and 30 were killed in American Samoa, according to the Associated Press. Authorities in Tonga confirmed at least six people were killed in that nearby island nation, the AP said.
On Wednesday morning, police searched swamps scattered with bodies as relief efforts swung into full gear. Power outages continued in many areas.
The Samoa Red Cross said it had opened five temporary shelters to help with the 15,000 people who were affected. President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency for American Samoa.
A Coast Guard C-130 plane loaded with aid and carrying FEMA officials flew from Hawaii to American Samoa's capital of Pago Pago, the AP reported.
The deaths in Samoa and nearby islands underscore the most vexing element of planning for tsunamis: Often the biggest challenge isn't knowing when a tsunami is coming, but getting the information out once the risk arises. Experts said the deaths may also point to deficiencies in current warning systems and training, particularly for a tsunami that strikes so close to shore, leaving only minutes to respond. The quake struck about 125 miles from Samoa and American Samoa.
In those cases, "the propagation of warnings from official sources" can be "useless," said Sanny Ramos Jegillos, a regional crisis prevention and recovery coordinator for the United Nations Development Programme in Bangkok. What may be needed, he said, is more training at local communities to teach residents and tourists that they must evacuate to higher ground even without official warnings when a strong earthquake occurs.
Morison McGregor, a 47-year-old IT consultant who lives in Denmark, said he and his girlfriend received no official warning after they felt the earthquake while at a resort along the Samoan coast, so they assumed everything was okay. Within ten minutes, though, his girlfriend saw a wave coming.
"When you looked back you could see a three- to four-meter wall of water behind you," he said. They escaped without major injury, though they lost their passports and other possessions.
Several other guests were killed, Mr. McGregor said, including a Brazilian woman staying in an adjacent villa and a three-year old child of a British man there. More than a dozen other residents in the area were killed as well, and the resort was largely destroyed, Mr. McGregor said.
Although Samoa has a system to alert residents by text message, it was unclear if messages went out to all parts of the country, where mobile-phone service can be spotty in some areas. Residents said some radio stations never interrupted their music.
Warnings from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii and other international monitors may have helped prevent injury in some areas. Residents in the Samoan capital of Apia said emergency officials fanned out across the city to warn residents soon after the earthquake.
"There were sirens and emergency workers all over the place, pestering people to walk up the hill," said Cherelle Jackson, a resident. But much of the worst danger "was on the other side of the island," she said.
"I don't think the tsunami warning failed; I just think there wasn't time for it to have effect," said Bob McMullan, parliamentary secretary for International Development Assistance in Australia. "We'll have to have a look at whether there was a planning or information problem."
Governments in the South Pacific have taken their own steps, especially since the tsunami that killed more than 200,000 people in South and Southeast Asia in December 2004.