President Obama Declares American Samoa a Major Disaster

At least 119 people are dead from the 8.3 quake and resulting tsunami.

September 30, 2009, 12:09 AM

Sept. 30, 2009 -- President Obama has declared the U.S. territory of American Samoa a major disaster after an undersea earthquake caused a tsunami and massive flooding that has reportedly killed at least 119 people in the South Pacific Samoan Islands and the islands of Tonga.

The president's declaration makes federal funding available to people in American Samoa, which has a population of about 65,000 people.

The 8.2 magnitude quake triggered huge waves that overtook small villages. The initial quake was followed by at least three aftershocks of at least 5.6 magnitude.

The quake struck early Tuesday morning in American Samoa and the independent nation of Samoa just as people were preparing to go to work, taking citizens by surprise.

The Associated Press has reported that at least 119 people were killed. That includes at least 83 people in Samoa. Officials say the death toll is likely to rise with dozens missing.

"I don't think anybody is going to be spared in this disaster," the acting governor of American Samoa, Faoa Sunia said.

A woman who works at a hotel in the Samoan capital of Apia said the area shook unlike any previous earthquake.

"All the houses were shaking," she told ABC News. "Really stronger than other earthquakes that we had before."

Speaking in Honolulu, Sunia said he has received reports of the destruction of several coastal villages. The governor's office said communication with the islands has been difficult, and that several people were still missing.

"There are still some families looking for their loved ones [who] ... left home and [went] ... to work early this morning," Sunia said, adding that several of those who died "were on their way to work in their cars this morning," as the "American Samoa main road is right next to the ocean.

"The first step," he said, "is trying to get some generators ... water and food" to those affected.

"At this point, our people really need help," he said, as he prepared to head to the islands.

Nynette Sass of Samoa Hotel Association told the BBC that there was total devastation on the islands. "The South Coast, the low lying areas where a lot of people live and operate tourism business is completely wiped out, absolutely nothing standing. Even concrete buildings are all gone."

In a statement released early today, Obama and the first lady said they would "keep those who have lost so much in our thoughts and prayers."

Tsunami Casualties Likely to Rise

According to the Press Association, Britain's Queen Elizabeth also expressed her condolences, sending messages to both the king of Tonga and the head of the state of the Samoan nation, saying she was "saddened to learn of the tragic loss of life."

Tongan authorities have confirmed at least six dead, according to New Zealand's acting prime minister, Bill English, who spoke to the AP.

Speaking to Australia's Seven Network, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said two Australians had died in the tsunami, including a 6-year-old girl. A British child is also among the missing, and is presumed dead, a Foreign Office spokesperson told ABC News.

Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi expressed his sadness to reporters onboard his flight from Auckland, New Zealand, to Apia, the Samoan capital. "So much has gone. So many people are gone," he said, "I'm so shocked, so saddened by all the loss."

He added that his own village of Lepa was among the villages wrecked by the tsunami. "Thankfully, the alarm sounded on the radio and gave people time to climb to higher ground," he said. "But not everyone escaped."

The Samoa Red Cross told the AP that about 15,000 people have been affected by the tsunami.

Rep. Eni Faleomavaega, a nonvoting delegate from American Samoa, said today that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has offered her condolences to the people of American Samoa.

In a statement released today, Pelosi said, "The thoughts of the entire Congress are with the people of American Samoa as they grapple with the terrible loss of life as a result of today's tsunami. As the island works to rebuild, all levels of the government, including Congress, will move quickly to address the needs of American Samoa and the Americans who live there."

Faleomavaega, Democrat, is now en route to Hawaii where he will board a military aircraft carrying aid to the affected areas in American Samoa.

"Given early reports," he said, "it is expected that there will be a significant number of casualties and fatalities and this is why I want to thank all those whose thoughts and prayers are with the people of American Samoa during this tragic time."

"We mourn with those who have lost loved ones, but our faith remains steady through the storm for we know that God has made it possible for families to be together forever."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.