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Race To Scramble Aid Into Stricken Solomon Islands

A view of an area of Ghizo Island after the region was hit by several strong earthquakes and a tsunami, 02 April 2007. Rescuers are scrambling to rush critical aid to this outpost of the Solomon Islands where thousands of people have been made homeless. Officials said at least 24 people had been killed and 5,400 were without shelter, but warned that many others were missing and the death toll would rise as the scale of the damage on the west coast became clearer. Photo courtesy AFP.
by Neil Sands
Gizo, Solomon Islands (AFP) April 03, 2007
Rescuers scrambled Tuesday to rush critical aid to this outpost of the Solomon Islands, where thousands of people made homeless by a tsunami were sleeping out, fearing a fresh disaster.

Officials said at least 24 people had been killed and 5,400 made homeless, but warned that many others were missing and the death toll would rise as the scale of the damage on the west coast became clearer.

As the government proclaimed a state of emergency, witnesses described how the devastating tsunami, spawned by Monday's powerful earthquake, smashed into the South Pacific nation with deadly force.

"It was so strong, like a current sucking people along," hotel worker Greg Vumba told AFP in Gizo.

"I couldn't believe it. I've never seen anything like it," he said from the debris-strewn hotel where a watermark stained the wall about half a meter (two feet) from the ground.

Solomon Islands police spokesman Mick Spinks said 13 coastal villages had been nearly wiped out. "Virtually all the houses have been destroyed."

The National Disaster Committee later lifted its tsunami warning and told villagers in the west to return home, although powerful aftershocks continued to rock the region.

In Gizo, a popular diving spot 45 kilometres (28 miles) from the epicentre of Monday's 8.0-magnitude quake, several thousand fearful residents sheltered on a hill overlooking the sea.

Many homes in Gizo, mostly built on stilts, were destroyed or badly damaged by the quake, and hundreds of houses, government offices and businesses in low areas were finished off by the wall of water.

"People are just scared to go to the coastal area because a lot of people don't have things to go back to," said Danny Kennedy, a local dive shop owner and member of the provincial government.

The Red Cross said the disaster had made 2,000 homeless in Gizo, 10 percent of its population.

In Australia, the government said a plane would head into the region with medical assessment teams, water, food rations and shelters, the first part of an overall deployment of two million dollars (1.6 million US) in aid.

Emergency supplies of food and medicine have begun trickling into some of the stricken areas. Local officials and aid workers underlined the urgency of getting water, food and tents for shelter to the survivors.

But difficult communications and sheer isolation have prevented relief and assessment teams reaching outlying areas, and officials said it may take days to get to all the survivors.

Little aid had arrived in Gizo by mid-afternoon Tuesday, except for medical supplies dropped off by a police patrol boat.

Volunteers at the hospital complained of a lack of resources that forced them to treat some patients on grass verges outside. Captain Jack Bana of Solomons Search and Rescue said it might take another two days to get all of the displaced tsunami survivors under shelter, even as tents, food and medicine headed to the area.

Tim O'Connor, of Caritas Australia which is helping with relief operations, said operations were going as well as could be expected.

"It's been 36 hours and you are seeing assistance starting to get through now, but the problem is the remote location and its difficult to get to."

The Solomon Islands, some 2,600 kilometres (1,600 miles) east of Australia, have a little over half a million people living on dozens of remote islands, while hundreds more are uninhabited.

Among the dead was a New Zealand man who tried to save his mother, while a bishop and three worshippers were killed when the tsunami hit their church on the island of Simbo, near Gizo.

Solomon Islands police and members of an Australian-led peacekeeping force flew over the western islands to assess the scale of the disaster.

Little information was available Tuesday, but sources said there were "no reports of bodies floating in the ocean," as some witnesses had reported.

In southeastern Papua New Guinea meanwhile, more than 200 kilometres from the epicentre, officials were scrambling to confirm reports that a family of five was swept away.

Source: Agence France-Presse

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