New quakes, small tsunami panic Pacific islanders

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Associated Press

Posted on October 8, 2009 at 10:42 AM

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Thousands of panicked South Pacific islanders raced away from coastlines after a series of strong earthquakes rocked the region and generated a small tsunami Thursday, just over a week after a massive wave killed 178 people in the Samoas and Tonga.

There were no immediate reports of damage, and tsunami warnings for 11 nations and territories were soon canceled. But people across the South Pacific took no chances, scrambling up hillsides and maneuvering through traffic-clogged streets to reach higher ground.

"There is panic here, too," Chris McKee, assistant director of the Geophysical Observatory in Papua New Guinea told The Associated Press. "People have rushed out onto the streets and are climbing hills."

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued a regional tsunami warning after a quake with a magnitude of 7.8 struck 183 miles (294 kilometers) northwest of the Vanuatu island of Santo at a depth of 21 miles (35 kilometers). Within an hour, two other temblors of magnitude 7.7 and 7.3 followed.

The Hawaii-based center canceled the warnings after sea-level readings indicated that the wave generated by the quakes was too small to cause much damage.

A fourth quake of magnitude 7.0 was recorded by the U.S. Geological Survey nearly 10 hours after the initial quake at a depth of 21 miles (35 kilometers) in the same ocean area northeast of Vanuatu. No tsunami alert was issued by the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii.

There were no immediate reports of injury or damage from officials in Vanuatu, a chain of 83 islands. It lies about 1,400 miles (2,200 kilometers) northeast of Sydney, Australia.

"We felt the quake — it shook the ground, but not very strongly," said a police officer in the town of Luganville on the island of Santo, the Vanuatu island nearest to the quakes' epicenters. The officer declined to give his name as he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Thursday's small tsunami came just over a week after a magnitude 8.3 quake sparked a large wave in the South Pacific that devastated coastal villages in Samoa, American Samoa and northern Tonga. The death toll from the Sept. 29 tsunami rose by five Thursday to 183, after searchers in Samoa found more bodies, said Vaosa Epa, chief executive in the office of Prime Minister and Cabinet. Another 32 people were killed in American Samoa and nine in Tonga.

That tragedy was fresh in the minds of residents of Tuvalu, a low-lying nation of eight coral atolls with about 10,000 people. Thousands fled inland after Thursday's alerts, some clustering around the government building in the capital, Funafuti — the only multistory building in the country.

In Samoa, where at least 142 were killed in the Sept. 29 tsunami, residents quickly headed for the hills. Cars clogged the roads leading inland, resident Russell Hunter told the AP in the capital, Apia.

"People were genuinely afraid," said Hunter, editor of the Samoa Observer newspaper. "They saw what happened last week and didn't want to be part of that again."

Thursday's warnings also created worry in American Samoa. Schools, government buildings and other residents were evacuated in the U.S. territory.

In New Caledonia, officials warned residents with alert horns and text messages. Schools were evacuated along the east coast and on the nearby Loyalty Islands.

Seismologist Rafael Abreu with the U.S. Geological Survey said Thursday's quakes appear to be unrelated to the Sept. 29 quake near Samoa.

The quakes occurred on different fault lines and the way the earth's plates moved in both events also differed, he said.

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Associated Press writers Kristen Gelineau in Sydney, Keni Lesa in Apia, Samoa, Berengere Nauleau in Noumea, New Caledonia, and Jaymes Song in Honolulu, Hawaii, contributed to this report.

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