9 Oct 2009

Vanuatu quakes spark panic in the Pacific

11:35 am on 9 October 2009

Major earthquakes off Vanuatu sparked panic in the Pacific on Thursday, sending people fleeing to higher ground, fearing a repeat of last week's devastating tsunamis in the region.

An advisory warning for the region was cancelled on Thursday but in New Zealand Civil Defence authorities advised people to remain vigilant and stay away from the coastline until Friday due to the possibility of strong currents.

Three strong quakes, measuring 7.6, 7.8 and 7.3 struck within an hour, followed by several aftershocks. There have been no reports of casualties or serious damage.

The epicentre of the first quake was 295km north-northwest of Luganville in Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu, and 260km south of Santa Cruz Islands in Solomon Islands.

It occurred at 9.03am local time at a depth of 35km, according to the US Geological Survey.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre in Hawaii issued a regional tsunami warning for parts of the region, including New Zealand, Vanuatu and Solomon Islands, but cancelled it at 1.18pm (NZ time). A tsunami of four centimetres had been detected off Luganville, the centre's website reported.

An 8.0 magnitude quake triggered devastating tsunamis in the Pacific last week, killing at least 184 people in Samoa, American Samoa and Tonga.

In Vanuatu's capital of Port Vila all schools, banks and companies closed following Thursday's alert.

New Zealand High Commissioner to Vanuatu, Jeff Langley, said people in Port Vila moved quickly to higher ground, including tourists from a large cruise ship who were downtown for the afternoon.

The assistant director of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre, Stewart Winestein, told Radio New Zealand's Checkpoint programme that strong currents could still affect the Vanuatu's coastline and people should stay off the beaches.

Mr Winestein said because there were at least two major quakes, tsunami wave activity off Vanuatu would continue for longer.

Strong current warning for NZ

In New Zealand, the Civil Defence Ministry cancelled its tsunami advisory for parts of the country on Thursday evening, but warned people should remain vigilant and stay away from the water.

The Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences said no significant surges had been recorded in the aftermath of the Vanuatu quakes.

GNS Science said tsunami gauges show what it describes as "ripples" recorded at North Cape between 6pm and 8pm on Thursday, but duty seismologist Warwick Smith said they were very small.

The Civil Defence Ministry has stood down the national crisis management centre but said sea surges generated by the quakes could still be a danger.

Spokesperson Vince Cholewa said people need to stay away from beaches and out of coastal water until Friday morning. The ministry warned currents may be especially strong on the West Coast between Hokitika and Karamea.

In Auckland, the Civil Defence emergency management group said there is still a risk of tidal surges and strong currents at the region's beaches and estuaries until Friday.

Panic in the Pacific

In Samoa, there was widespread panic on Thursday, as a tsunami warning was issued for all low-lying areas. The country was hardest-hit by last week's 8.0 magnitude quake and tsunamis, which has killed at least 143 people.

A Radio New Zealand reporter on the south side of the island said groups of women and children scrambled to get to higher ground. In the capital Apia, businesses were abandoned and motorists were told the leave their cars on the side of the road.

In tsunami-hit American Samoa, panicked villagers took no chances and fled to the mountains, only returning to coastal areas long after the tsunami risk had passed. Thirty-two people in the US territory were killed in last week's tsunami.

In Papua New Guinea, the central business district in the capital Port Moresby was evacuated. Workers were ordered to leave major buildings after panic spread, the AAP reports.

In New Caledonia, schools were evacuated and authorities moved people from the island's eastern shore and from the nearby Loyalty Islands to higher ground following the tsunami warning.

In Fiji, many areas close to the sea were evacuated. Offices and schools near the coast were closed and the disaster management office advised hotels to take tourists to higher ground.

In low-lying Tuvalu, residents were evacuated from coastal areas and police have encouraged people to move inland.

Moments before the Pacific quakes, a magnitude 6.7 tremor struck southeast of the Sulu archipelago of the Philippines, which is still mopping up from a typhoon that killed at least 22 people. No tsunami warning was issued.

Indonesia's port city Padang was hit by a 7.6 magnitude quake last week, killing 704 people and leaving 295 missing.