Honiara: At least 12 people were killed and many more missing after a powerful earthquake and tsunami struck the tiny Solomon Islands, sweeping away entire villages and triggering a Pacific-wide tsunami alert.
The shallow quake, with a magnitude of at least 8.0, levelled buildings and damaged a hospital on Gizo island northwest of the Solomons capital, Honiara, while a tsunami sucked homes into the sea as thousands of panicked residents fled for higher ground.
At least seven people died in Gizo, many trapped in their homes when waves swept through the town. Other bodies could be seen but not reached because of big waves, the government said in a statement.
“The wave was up to 10-metres (32 feet) high in some villages,” Solomon Islands’ chief government spokesman Alfred Maesulia told Reuters. “Some villages have been entirely washed away.”
The quake struck 350 km north-west of Honiara during the morning and sparked a tsunami alert around the Pacific.
Beaches along Australia’s east coast were shut and ferry services halted in Sydney Harbour amid fears of a repeat of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami disaster.
The alert was lifted about nine hours later, with damage confined to the immediate area around the quake.
Solomons Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare said the disaster could have been worse if it had happened only a few hours earlier, in darkness, when more people would have been asleep.
“We are lucky that it happened during the daytime, that the people observed the sea receded as a sign that something was not right,” Sogavare told CNN television.
Witnesses described the arriving wave, which Australia’s government said also hit the western Papua New Guinea island of Bougainville, as an “extreme tide”.
“The water just came up about probably about 4 to 5 metres (13 to 16 feet) above sea level and kind of just went up into the communities and doused everything,” Danny Kennedy, a dive shop owner and provincial politician on Gizo, told Reuters.
Jackson Kiloe, the Premier of Choiseul, said huge rolling waves were crashing ashore, prompting evacuations.
“The huge wave rolls are stronger than floods,” he said.
Solomons’ disaster management authorities said communications problems were preventing an assessment of damage on Simbo island where residents reported waves hitting houses 200 metres (200 yards) inland.
Geological agencies, including those in Australia and Japan, put the magnitude of the quake at 8.1 while the U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) revised its earlier estimate to 8.0.
The initial tremor was followed around seven minutes later by a second one, centred further west, of magnitude 6.7, USGS said.
Gary Gibson, who chairs the International Seismological Centre executive committee, said the quake was the biggest to hit the Solomons since 1900.
“An earthquake of this size would involve a rupture of more than 10,000 square kilometres of fault area ... about 100 kilometres by 100 kilometres,” he said.
But he said the quake was much smaller than the 1,300 km long rupture in December 2004 off Indonesia’s Sumatra island.
The Solomon Islands lies on the so-called Pacific “Ring of Fire” where volcanic activity and earthquakes are fairly common.
The islands are popular with international travellers for scuba diving. Most homes in the mountainous islands are constructed of timber and bamboo, with villagers relying on fishing and logging for employment.