Malayala Manorama , 04 May 2006

Tonga quake sends tsunami fears across Sth Pacific

NUKU'ALOFA, Tonga (Reuters) - A powerful undersea earthquake rocked the islands of Tonga on Thursday, generating a small tsunami and sparking fears across the South Pacific of a major disaster, but there were no reports of damage.

The 7.9 earthquake at a depth of 55 km struck 160 km south of Tonga's Neiafu island at 4.26 a.m. local time (1526 GMT), said the U.S. Geological Survey. The centre had earlier said the quake had measured 8.1 and was shallower.

"Sea level readings indicate a tsunami was generated," said the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii. "It may have been destructive along coasts near the earthquake epicentre."

The tsunami was estimated at about only half a metre, with tide gauges in Pago Pago, Samoa and Niue showing a small rise.

But fear spread in the region of a major tsunami similar to the 2004 disaster that left more than 230,000 people dead or missing. Several coastal hotels in Fiji moved tourists to higher ground and scores of coastal residents in New Zealand abandoned their homes.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center initially issued a tsunami warning for Tonga, Fiji, Samoa, New Zealand and other small island states, cancelling the alert after a few hours.

Incorrect media reports that the tsunami was heading towards New Zealand saw residents in Gisborne, on the east coast of the country's North Island, to head for higher ground.

"I'm actually due to have a baby, so we thought we better be organised," Gisborne woman Kelly Cullen, whose family drove to higher ground, told local media.

The earthquake rocked Tonga's capital Nuku'alofa, temporarily cutting power, but caused no major damage or injuries. Residents said the quake, the worst in 20 years, lasted about 30 seconds.

"I was in bed when I woke up to the room shaking, I thought I was having a bad dream. When I got out of bed, I was thrown against the wall, said Andrew Stainlay in Nuku'alofa.

Tongan officials said they were checking outer islands in the group, particularly the low-lying Hapai Islands, which were near the epicentre. The Tonga islands are an archipelago east of Australia, southeast of Fiji and northeast of New Zealand.

Fijian authorities said there were no reports of damage or tidal changes, but the country was on a 24-hour watch and people living along the coast and hotels and resorts are on full alert.

"If there are any aftershock warnings then we'll reinforce the warning, but as for now the warning has been cancelled," said Fiji seismologist Milesh Kumar-Jit.

Fiji's National Disaster Management Office said there was a need to improve communication between emergency service organisations for more efficient disaster warnings.

The Pacific will stage a tsunami warning drill on May 16-17.

New Zealand usually received about 10 to 20 tsunami alerts a year, said Civil Defence national controller Mike O'Leary.

New Zealand's National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research said the Tonga quake on the northern end of the boundary between the Pacific and Australian plates was unlikely to generate a tsunami across the Pacific towards New Zealand.

"When the wave propagates away it goes northwest and southeast. That's almost perpendicular to where we are. The amount of wave coming off the ends of it toward us is just really minimal," said institute oceanographer Roy Walters.