Disaster relief agencies were struggling yesterday to reach remote tsunami-hit villages in the Solomon Islands and warned the death toll following a powerful magnitude 8.0 earthquake is likely to rise.
At least eight people were confirmed dead after Wednesday’s quake generated a wave that swamped coastal communities on Ndende island in the eastern Solomons and triggered warnings of a more widespread tsunami that was later lifted.
Aid agency World Vision said the force of the surging water shunted some houses 10m back from the coast in the Ndende town of Venga and almost all the homes in Nela village were washed away.
“I’m currently walking through one community and I’m knee-deep in water,” World Vision emergency coordinator Jeremiah Tabua said. “I can see a number of houses that have been swept away by the surge.”
Unconfirmed reports said nine were killed and the national disaster management office said it had no clear picture of the scale of destruction on the isolated island, more than 600km from the capital Honiara.
“Some of the remote communities we haven’t heard back from yet, it’s very difficult to get information,” office spokesman Sipulu Rove said.
He said local officials were trying to check on the villages, but the process could take days, as roads had been blocked by landslides and telecommunications were poor or non-existent.
The stricken island’s airstrip was also closed because of debris on the runway, preventing planes carrying relief supplies from landing and thwarting plans to send reconnaissance flights over the disaster zone.
Officials said about 460 houses had been destroyed, leaving about 3,000 people homeless, with many villagers fleeing for higher ground.
Red Cross disaster manager Cameron Vudi said the death toll was likely to rise as reports filtered in from isolated communities.
“We’re expecting changes. There are signs that there might be increases in the number of casualties,” he said. “There are still reports coming in. Most of the reports are confined to areas that are accessible by road, but there are a lot more communities that have been damaged.”
Rove said the airstrip was expected to reopen today and that the government had asked the Royal Australian Air Force to send a plane to survey damage.
Boats carrying medical teams and emergency supplies, such as tarpaulins, fresh water, food and clothing, were set to depart Honiara for Ndende yesterday, but are not expected to reach the island until the weekend.
Both Australia and New Zealand said they were ready to provide assistance to their northern neighbor, with Wellington pledging an immediate NZ$200,000 (US$167,000) for humanitarian supplies.
The US Geological Survey said Wednesday’s quake struck beneath the sea about 76km west of Lata, Ndende’s main town, at a depth of 28.7km.
The quake was followed by dozens of strong aftershocks of up to magnitude 7.0.