Relief operation begins in tsunami-hit Pacific

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Wellington - A major relief operation has begun following a devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck in the South Pacific.

The combined death toll from powerful tsunamis which hit Samoa, American Samoa and Tonga following the 8.0 magnitude quake reached 155 on Thursday.

About 20 villages on Samoa's southern coast are thought to have been destroyed after large waves hit the area on Wednesday.

The official death toll in Samoa stood at 115 on Wednesday night, though the disaster management office expects the figure to rise as more bodies are recovered. Many of those killed were children and the elderly.

In neighbouring American Samoa, 31 people were killed, while nine people were killed in Tonga.

The disaster management office said there were no confirmed figures on the number of people left homeless in Samoa, but 32 000 have been affected in some way by the disaster.

Rescuers continued to recover bodies from the sea or those trapped under mud and rubble on Thursday morning. A number of Samoans remain unaccounted for, while officials are trying to establish how many tourists are in the disaster area.

Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele, who inspected the devastated areas on Thursday, said rebuilding the country is expected to take up to a year.