Strong earthquake off Pacific island nation of Tonga generates small tsunami
NUKU’ALOFA, Tonga – A powerful earthquake struck near the South Pacific nation of Tonga early Thursday, triggering tsunami warnings for as far away as Fiji and New Zealand. But word of the imminent danger never reached the tiny country closest to the epicenter.There were no reports of injuries from the magnitude-7.9 temblor, about 95 miles south of Neiafu, Tonga, and 1,340 miles north-northeast of Auckland, New Zealand. Authorities lifted the warnings within two hours, after recording a wave of less than 2 feet.But nearly 18 months after an earthquake-driven tsunami in the Indian Ocean left at least 216,000 people dead or missing, sparking international calls for a better warning system, Pacific islanders received little or no notice of Thursday’s threat.A warning issued by the Honolulu-based Pacific Tsunami Warning Center first went out 16 minutes after the 4:26 a.m. earthquake, which occurred 34 miles below sea level.”We usually send it through e-mails, faxes, we make phone calls to the places nearest to the epicenter to make sure people are warned,” said Victor Sardina, a geophysicist at the center.Tonga did not receive the alert because of a power failure there, said the center’s acting director, Gerard Fryer.”There was problem in Tonga where there was a power outage and they didn’t get our initial message,” Fryer said, adding that the center needs to work with Tonga to correct the problem. He said he did not know whether the power failure was caused by the earthquake.Mali’u Takai, deputy director of the Tonga’s National Disaster Office, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview that no warning was received.”Nobody got a warning through the emergency satellite system in our meteorological office,” Takai said. “Judging by the location of the epicenter, we would have been caught out without any warning at all because of the system’s malfunction.”However, any warning probably would have been too late for Tongans if a major tsunami had come, because the epicenter was so close.The Honolulu-based center’s warning said it was possible a tsunami could strike Fiji within two hours of the quake and then, an hour later, New Zealand.In Fiji, a tsunami warning alarm sounded in the capital, Suva. But authorities apparently failed to inform citizens, many on tiny and remote islands with poor communications.At the Wakaya Club, a private luxury Fijian island resort where recent guests have included Rolling Stone guitarist Keith Richards, staff were alerted to the danger through satellite television news.But the danger passed without the need to alert the guests or evacuate them to the island’s high point, a resort employee said on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to make press statements.In New Zealand, hundreds of residents on the country’s east coast fled their homes after hearing media reports.A spokesman for New Zealand’s National Crisis Management Center, Allen Walley, said authorities did not issue a national civil defense warning.”The Ministry of Civil Defense and Emergency Management was in contact with the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center throughout the process and was alerted to a possible tsunami,” he said. “Overseas media reports had incorrectly suggested a threat and the need for evacuations.”New Zealand coastal resident Philip Payne, manager of the Ocean Beach Motor Lodge, said he did not know about the threat until it had passed.But the lack of contact from Civil Defense has him worried because it would have been a major exercise to evacuate his 60 guests, along with his own family.”We had no awareness whatsoever,” Payne said. “I’m concerned. We certainly would have needed to be contacted by Civil Defense and told of where we could have evacuated our guests if necessary.”Authorities along New Zealand’s east coast had been on full alert and ready to evacuate people in low-lying areas prone to wave damage, officials said.Barbara Callender in Gisborne said the false alarm was a wake-up call for residents.”I think it was great because at least it is making us very aware that this could be quite serious, and think about the things that we seriously needed to take with us,” she said. “It (made) us think about how we would go about an evacuation.”Tonga escaped unscathed.”We have no reports of injury or fatalities or of structural damage throughout the (Tonga Islands) group,” Takai said. “There are broken windows in a few houses but that’s about it.”Mary Fonua, a publisher in the capital, Nuku’alofa, said it was the most powerful quake she had felt in 27 years there.”It was rocking and rolling, the floor was shaking, the whole family stood in the doorway and we heard crockery breaking in the kitchen and books fell from the shelves,” she said.”It’s very dark and the power went off during the quake. … Staff are reporting big flashes as the electricity grid went down during the shake and lines were broken.”Shelves were seen overturned in bookstores. Power in the city was restored after two hours, but most phone lines were jammed by incoming calls.A police officer in Neiafu, 180 miles north of the capital, said he felt the quake for about 90 seconds.”It was strong but not long,” duty constable Salesi Baongo said.Tonga – a 170-island archipelago about halfway between Australia and Tahiti – has a population of about 108,000 and an economy dependent on pumpkin and vanilla exports, fishing, foreign aid and remittances from Tongans abroad.Now the last monarchy in the Pacific, Tonga has been a Polynesian kingdom and a protectorate of Britain, from which it acquired independence in 1970. It is ruled by 87-year-old King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV.The center in Hawaii issued a warning that also covered Niue, Samoa, Wallis-Futuna and the U.S. territory of American Samoa.A tsunami advisory was issued for Hawaii, but the warning center said the earthquake, based on historical records, was not sufficient to generate a tsunami damaging to the Pacific coasts of the United States and Canada, and Alaska. Some areas could experience small changes in sea level, it said.In Hawaii, schools near shorelines were closed as a precaution.The warning center’s instruments detected a tsunami of less than 2 feet in areas close to the earthquake, geophysicist Barry Hirshorn said.”We’re not observing much of a tsunami,” he said. “Strictly speaking, it’s not very devastating.”On Dec. 26, 2004, the most powerful earthquake in four decades – magnitude 9.0 – ripped apart the Indian Ocean floor off Indonesia’s Sumatra island, displacing millions of tons of water and spawning giant waves that sped off in all directions.—On the Net:USGS: http://earthquake.usgs.gov/eqcenter/recenteqsww/Quakes/usmgas.phpPacific Tsunami Warning Center: http://www.prh.noaa.gov/ptwc/wmsgVail, Colorado
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