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04/03/07 - Honiara, Solomon Islands

Tsunami Death Toll Rises Higher

Survivors scavenged for food and drinking water in towns hammered by a tsunami on the Solomon Islands' west coast, while officials said the death toll was at 28 and would rise higher as they struggled to reach remote communities.

The first television footage of the devastated region taken by helicopter after Monday's double-hit disaster -- a huge undersea earthquake followed minutes later by a surging wall of water -- showed building after tin-and-thatched-roof building collapsed along a muddy foreshore.

Men, some shirtless and wearing shorts, picked through the debris. Some buildings leaned awkwardly on broken stilts.

Arnold Moveni, chairman of the disaster committee in the Solomons' hardest-hit Western Province, said 28 people were confirmed dead, and that the toll was expected to keep rising. Most bodies were found by residents as they searched through rubble for missing relatives, he said.

Five unconfirmed deaths were reported in neighboring Papua New Guinea.

The government lifted a tsunami warning imposed since Monday's disaster, despite powerful aftershocks that continued to rattle nerves, and was encouraging people to return to their homes.

National Disaster Management Office spokesman Julian Makaa told Australian Broadcasting Corp. an initial damage assessment was "around 916 houses, and a very rough estimate of the people affected is around 5,000 people."

The Red Cross said about 2,000 of those were homeless in Gizo, the main population center of some 7,000 in the zone, and that outlying villages still to be reached may have fared much worse.

Many of the homeless spent Monday night sleeping under tarpaulins or the stars on a hill behind Gizo after the magnitude 8.1 quake hit Monday morning under the sea about 40 kilometers (25 miles) off Gizo. Walls of water up to five meters (16 feet) high plowed into the coast five minutes later.

Among the dead were a bishop and three worshippers were killed when a wave hit a church during an ordination ceremony on the island of Simbo, the United Church said.

ABC reported from Papua New Guinea that a family of five had been washed away in that country's far east -- the first reported deaths there. Government officials there could not confirm any casualties Tuesday.

A 53-year-old New Zealand man drowned trying to save his mother from the waves during a visit to Gizo, New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark said. His mother remained missing.

Few of the homeless had even basic supplies, and their situation would quickly turn desperate, officials said.

"There is no food available" in the main settlements of Gizo and Noro, said Alfred Maesulia, a government spokesman in the capital, Honiara. "Some settlements have been completely wiped out by the waves."

The relief effort into the remote region was getting moving, but slowly.

One police patrol boat carrying emergency supplies arrived in Gizo from Honiara overnight and three private charters were due Tuesday. Australian and New Zealand military helicopters based in the Solomons as part of a security force also were expected to join relief operations.

New Zealand Defense Minister Phil Goff said a military C-130 cargo plane was flying to Solomon Islands Tuesday with tents, tarpaulins and food for several hundred people.

The main airport, phone and power lines, and coastal roads remained out commission Tuesday.

Fred Fakarii, chairman of the National Disaster Management Council, said there had been one official assessment flyover, and that another team would be sent soon to help draft a relief plan. Initial reports showed the "destruction was massive and widespread," he said.

"I suspect there will be further deaths to report as the day progresses, unfortunately," deputy police commissioner Peter Marshall said.

More than 25 aftershocks had shaken the region by late Tuesday, including two of magnitude 6.2.

Danny Kennedy, a dive shop operator, said survivors had ventured into Gizo looking for bottled water and other supplies -- and found a mess.

"Unfortunately a lot of the stores, their cargo has fallen from the higher shelves and covered lower things, and the buildings are quite unstable," Kennedy told New Zealand's National Radio.

Marshall said officials would tolerate survivors taking goods they don't own until emergency supplies arrived.

"They are desperate times in Gizo," he said. "And we've got to be practical."

Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare declared a national state of emergency and held meetings with his impoverished country's aid donors about getting help.

The Solomon Islands is a poverty-wracked archipelago of more than 200 islands with a population of about 552,000 people. On July 21, 1975, a large tsunami hit Bougainville, killing an estimated 200 people, according to the U.S. Geological Survey and World Health Organization.

Story courtesy of CNN Newsource.

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