A powerful Pacific Ocean earthquake spawned towering tsunami waves that swept ashore on Samoa and American Samoa early Tuesday, flattening villages, killing more than 80 people and leaving several workers missing at a devastated national park.
Cars and people were swept out to sea as survivors fled to high ground, where they remained huddled hours later. Signs of devastation were everywhere, with a giant boat washed ashore at the edge of a highway and cars and homes swallowed by floodwaters.
Mase Akapo, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in American Samoa, a U.S. territory, reported at least 19 people dead in four villages on the main island of Tutuila.
American Samoa Gov. Togiola Tulafono put the death toll at 24 and said it could rise. Fifty other people were hurt, he said.
In neighboring Samoa, police commissioner Lilo Maiava told the Associated Press that 63 were confirmed dead and hundreds injured. Officials are still searching the devastated areas, he said.
“Injured people are being stabilized on site by teams in the villages and will be brought over to the main hospital, but roads and communications are damaged,” Samoa health official Palanitina Toelupe told Reuters from the emergency ward of the hospital in the nation’s capital, Apia.
Hampered by power and communications outages, officials struggled to assess the damage. But the death toll seemed sure to rise. One official told Reuters it toll could approach 100 in Samoa alone.
“It’s believed, as of now, there could be a number close to 100 deaths,” said Ausegalia Mulipola, assistant chief executive of Samoa’s disaster management office. “Some areas have been flattened and the tsunami had brought a lot of sand onshore, so there have been reports the sand has covered some of the bodies.”
The quake, with a magnitude of 8.0 to 8.3, struck around dawn about 20 miles below the ocean floor. The epicenter was 120 miles from American Samoa -- home to 65,000 people -- and 125 miles from Samoa.
Mike Reynolds, superintendent of the National Park of American Samoa, was quoted as saying that four waves 15 to 20 feet high roared ashore soon afterward, reaching up to a mile inland.
Holly Bundock, spokeswoman for the National Park Service’s Pacific West Region in Oakland, said Reynolds reported that the park’s visitor center and offices appeared to be destroyed. Bundock said that Reynolds and an aide could find only 20% of the park’s 40 to 50 employees and volunteers.
Eni Faleomavaega, who represents American Samoa as a nonvoting delegate in the U.S. House of Representatives, said he had talked to people by telephone who said that Pago Pago -- just a few feet above sea level -- had been leveled. Several hundred homes were destroyed, he said, but getting information has been difficult.
Residents in both Samoa and American Samoa reported being shaken awake by the quake, which lasted two to three minutes. It was followed by at least three aftershocks of magnitude 5.6 or greater.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued a general alert from American Samoa to New Zealand. Tonga suffered some coastal damage from 13-foot waves. Japan’s Meteorological Agency issued a tsunami warning all along that country’s eastern coast.
New Zealander Graeme Ansell said the beach village of Sau Sau Beach Fale in Samoa was leveled.
“It was very quick. The whole village has been wiped out,” he told New Zealand radio from a hill near Apia. " . . . We’ve all clambered up hills, and one of our party has a broken leg. There will be people in a great lot of need ‘round here.”
U.S. Coast Guard spokesman Lt. John Titchen said a C-130 was being dispatched today to deliver aid and assess damage.
In Washington, President Obama issued a disaster declaration, making federal funds available to victims in American Samoa.
The earthquake and tsunami, although large, were not on the scale of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed more than 220,000 people, said tsunami expert Brian Atwater of the U.S. Geological Survey in Seattle.