Earthquake Hits South Pacific; Generates Small Tsunami

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NUKU’ALOFA, Tonga (AP) – A magnitude 8.0 earthquake struck early Thursday near the South Pacific nation of Tonga, prompting tsunami warnings for as far away as Fiji and New Zealand. The warning was lifted after a tsunami of less than 2 feet was recorded.

There were no reports of damage from the quake or tsunami. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Honolulu lifted its warning for all areas within several hours. It said there was no data indicating that the 4:26 a.m. earthquake generated a giant wave.

“Sea level readings indicate a tsunami was generated,” the center said. “It may have been destructive along coasts near the earthquake epicenter.”

The temblor, classified by the U.S. Geological Survey as a “great” quake, struck about 95 miles south of Neiafu, Tonga, and 1,340 miles north-northeast of Auckland, New Zealand. It occurred 20 miles beneath the sea floor.

A warning said it was possible a tsunami could strike Fiji within two hours of the quake and then, an hour later, New Zealand.

Speaking about the time a wave was forecast to reach Fiji, police spokesman Mesake Koroi said in the capital, Suva, there had been no immediate reports of a tsunami.

In New Zealand, Sgt. James Tasmania of Gisborne police said civil defense authorities had been put on high alert, but he added that “none of the (ocean) monitoring buoys have reported anything significant.”

A police officer in Tonga’s capital, Nuku’alofa, said there were no immediate reports of damage or a tsunami.

Another officer in Neiafu, 180 miles to the north, said the quake was felt for about 90 seconds.

“It was strong but not long,” duty constable Salesi Baongo said.

Asked whether the tsunami warning had been received, Baongo said, “No, we haven’t heard about it.”

Mary Fonua, a publisher in Nuku’alofa, said it was the most powerful quake she had felt in 27 years in Tonga.

“It was rocking and rolling, the floor was shaking, the whole family stood in the doorway and we heard crockery breaking in the kitchen and books fell from the shelves,” she said.

“It’s very dark and the power went off during the quake … staff are reporting big flashes as the electricity grid went down during the shake and lines were broken.”

“It felt very close but we haven’t heard a tsunami warning” in the capital, she said.

A tsunami warning also was issued for Niue, Samoa, Wallis-Futuna and the U.S. territory of American Samoa.

A tsunami advisory was issued for Hawaii, but the warning center said the earthquake, based on historical records, was not sufficient to generate a tsunami damaging to the Pacific coasts of the United States and Canada, and Alaska. Some areas could experience small changes in sea level, it said.

The warning center’s instruments detected there could be small tsunamis with waves of less than 2 feet in areas close to the earthquake, geophysicist Barry Hirshorn said.

“We’re not observing much of a tsunami,” he said. “Strictly speaking, it’s not very devastating.”

Tonga _ a 170-island archipelago about halfway between Australia and Tahiti _ has a population of about 108,000 and an economy dependent on pumpkin and vanilla exports, fishing, foreign aid and remittances from Tongans abroad.

Now the last monarchy in the Pacific, Tonga has been a Polynesian kingdom and a protectorate of Britain, from which it acquired independence in 1970. It is ruled by 87-year-old King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV, who is ailing.

Fiji, a South Pacific country made up of more than 300 islands, a third of which are inhabited, is regularly rattled by earthquakes, but few cause any damage or casualties.

On Dec. 26, 2004, the most powerful earthquake in four decades _ magnitude 9.0 _ ripped apart the Indian Ocean floor off Indonesia’s Sumatra island, displacing millions of tons of water and spawning giant waves that sped off in all directions.

That tsunami left at least 216,000 people dead or missing in a dozen nations.


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