A massive undersea earthquake triggered a series of tsunamis that claimed at least 99 lives in Samoa and Tonga, displaced thousands more, and wiped out entire villages and parts of cities. Unlike the 2004 tsunami that killed 230,000 in the Indian Ocean region, timely warnings appear to have saved countless lives. The effort to keep them alive has only just begun, however:
The quake, with a magnitude between 8.0 and 8.3, struck around dawn about 125 miles from Samoa, an island nation of 180,000 people located about halfway between New Zealand and Hawaii. It struck about 120 miles from neighboring American Samoa, a U.S. territory that is home to 65,000 people.
Four tsunami waves 15 to 20 feet high roared ashore on American Samoa, reaching up to a mile inland, Mike Reynolds, superintendent of the National Park of American Samoa, was quoted as saying by a parks service spokeswoman.
Hampered by power and communications outages, officials struggled to determine damage and casualties.
Samoan police commissioner Lilo Maiava told The Associated Press that police there had confirmed 63 deaths but that officials were still searching the devastated areas, so the number of deaths might rise soon.
Hundreds of injured people were being treated by health workers, and people were still struggling into centers seeking treatment, Maiava said.
At least 30 people were killed on American Samoa, Gov. Togiola Tulafono said, adding that the toll was expected to rise as emergency crews were recovering bodies overnight.
FEMA has already been dispatched, and Barack Obama has declared a disaster and an emergency in American Samoa. We can expect the US to respond robustly, as we did in 2004, with military assets used to deliver food and medical supplies in order to keep people alive. Later, we will also have to work on rebuilding the devastated areas, but the next few days will be critical to halting the loss of life.
The charitable and generous spirit of Americans will also be needed. In 2004-5, I recommended World Vision as a reliable charity for getting tsunami relief to the victims; the Red Cross will also be on the front lines.