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Tsunami lashes Pacific islands

Honiara (Solomon Islands), April 2 (AP): Thousands of survivors huddled on a hilltop refuge as terrifying aftershocks rumbled beneath them and bodies were left unrecovered in waters off a remote Solomon Islands town hours after a deadly tsunami struck today.

The surging waters that plowed through Gizo and surrounding villages this morning were triggered by a massive sub-sea earthquake that set off tsunami alarms from Tokyo to Hawaii and that closed beaches more than 2,000 km away.

Thirteen people died, and the toll was expected to rise, officials said.

In Australia, beaches along the entire eastern coast were closed and lifeguards with bullhorns yelled at surfers to get out of the water at Sydney’s famous Bondi Beach.

The danger passed quickly, but officials rejected suggestions that they overreacted, saying it was better to be safe than sorry and that the emergency tested procedures put in place after the 2004 Indian Ocean disaster that left 230,000 dead or missing in a dozen countries.

In the Solomons, up to 4,000 people were encamped tonight on a hill behind Gizo, a town of about 7,000, said Alex Lokopio,premier of Western Province that was hardest hit.

Floodwaters had subsided, but most government buildings and many houses were wrecked, and people were too scared to return to the coast.

“There wasn’t any warning — the warning was the earth tremors,” Lokopio told New Zealand’s National Radio. “It shook us very, very strongly and we were frightened, and all of a sudden the sea was rising up.”

Within five minutes, a wall of water up to five meters high plowed into the coast, inundating homes, businesses, a hospital, schools and two police stations, and dumping boats into streets in Gizo, witnesses and officials said.

Outlying villages, where many houses are flimsy wooden structures, may have fared worse, based on scattered reports from residents with two-way radios.

Villagers on Simbo, Choiseul and Ranunga islands reported deaths and widespread destruction, said Alfred Maesulia, the information director in Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s office.

“There are reports that some villages were completely washed away,” he said. “Sasamungga village is quite a big village... It was reported that 300 houses were completely destroyed in that village alone.”

The Solomon Islands Red Cross reported that around 10 per cent of the population in Gizo may have been left homeless, with initial reports from other islands suggesting similar or worse levels of damage.

Phone and electricity lines were heavily damaged, it said.

Sogavare declared a national state of emergency and held meetings with his impoverished country’s aid donors about getting help. “My heart goes out to all of you at this very trying time,” Sogavare said in an address to the nation.

Numerous aftershocks around magnitude 6 rattled the islands today and into the night. The original bone-rattling quake struck shortly after (2039 GMT yesterday) just 10 km beneath the sea floor about 40 km from Gizo, the US Geological Survey said.

“It was just a noise like an underground explosion,” said resident Dorothy Parkinson. “The wave came almost instantaneously. Everything that was standing is flattened,” she told Australia’s Nine Network television.

Another resident, Judith Kennedy, said water “right up to your head” swept through the town. Her father, dive shop owner Danny Kennedy, said the surge left the town devastated when it subsided. “There are boats in the middle of the road, buildings have completely collapsed and fallen down,” he said.

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