PAGO PAGO, American Samoa – A powerful Pacific Ocean earthquake spawned towering tsunami waves that swept ashore on Samoa and American Samoa, flooding and flattening villages, killing dozens of people and leaving several workers missing at devastated National Park Service facilities.
Cars and people were swept out to sea by the fast-churning water as survivors fled to higher ground, where they remained huddled hours after the quake struck early Tuesday. Signs of immense devastation were everywhere, with a giant boat getting washed ashore and coming to rest on the edge of a highway and floodwaters swallowing up cars and homes.
The quake, with a magnitude between 8.0 and 8.3, struck around dawn about 20 miles below the ocean floor, 120 miles from American Samoa, a U.S. territory that is home to 65,000 people.
Hampered by power and communications outages, officials hours later struggled to get a handle on the damage and casualties. At least 39 people were killed – 20 on Samoa and 19 on American Samoa – but officials acknowledged the death toll seemed sure to rise.
“I don’t think anybody is going to be spared in this disaster,” said acting American Samoa Gov. Faoa A. Sunia.
Mase Akapo, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in American Samoa, reported at least 19 people killed in four different villages on the main island of Tutuila. Officials reported at least 50 injured, and possibly many more.
In neighboring Samoa, an Associated Press reporter saw the bodies of about 20 victims in a hospital at Lalomanu town on the south coast of the main island of Upolu, and said the surrounding tourist coast had been devastated. At least three villages were flattened.
Sunia declared a state of emergency in American Samoa, describing “immense and widespread damage to individual, public and commercial buildings in coastal areas” along with death and injury. Gov. Togiola Tulafono, who was in Honolulu for a conference, told reporters that more victims could be found when rescuers reach areas that are inaccessible by roads.
Tulafono said his immediate family was safe, but there was at least one death among his extended family.
America Samoa is home to a U.S. national park that appeared to be especially hard-hit. Holly Bundock, spokeswoman for the National Park Service’s Pacific West Region in Oakland, Calif., said the superintendent of the park and another staffer had been able to locate only 20 percent of the park’s 13 to 15 employees and 30 to 50 volunteers.
Mike Reynolds, superintendent of the National Park of American Samoa, was quoted as saying four tsunami waves 15 to 20 feet high roared ashore soon afterward, reaching up to a mile inland.
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 large aftershocks of at least 5.6 magnitude.
Eni Faleomavaega, who represents American Samoa as a non-voting delegate in the U.S. House, said he had talked to people by telephone who said that Pago Pago – just a few feet above sea level – was leveled. Several hundred people had their homes destroyed, although getting more concrete information has been difficult, he said.
In Washington, President Barack Obama issued a disaster declaration, making federal funds available to victims in American Samoa.