Updated: Tsunami Waves Slam Into American Samoa and National Park of American Samoa, Leaving Death and Destruction in its Wake

A tsunami triggered by an earthquake in the South Pacific slammed into the U.S. territory of American Samoa shortly before 7 a.m. Wednesday, local time, killing nearly three dozen islanders and reportedly demolishing the headquarters and visitor center of the National Park of American Samoa.

Cellphone messages relayed to officials in the National Park Service's Pacific West regional office in California said a series of five waves battered the park's two-story building, which stands about 50 feet from the harbor waters in the capital of Pago Pago on the island of Tutuila.

"Our park superintendent (Mike Reynolds) was in the building when the first wave hit. That was early in the morning. He and this other staffer, (Ranger) Sarah Bone, ran out of the building and up hill, and made a call to our Honolulu office," Holly Bundock, assistant regional director for communications in the Park Service's Pacific West office, said Tuesday afternoon. “The last report was five waves and one as high as 30 feet.”

The Associated Press reported that at least 34 islanders were killed by the waves. Ms. Bundock said there weren't any reports of injuries or deaths among the park's staff, which she said counts 13-15 full-time employees and 30-50 volunteers.

"Every report we get, more and more employees are showing up, which is a great relief to us," she said. "It was so early in the morning people hadn’t actually arrived for work yet. Now we’re kind of focused on assisting the Coast Guard and any kind of emergency service operation.”

The U.S. Geological Survey measured the earthquake at a magnitude of 8.0 and said its epicenter was centered 11.2 miles below the ocean about 125 miles south of Apia on the independent state of Samoa.

The broad-scale tectonics of the Tonga region are dominated by the relative convergence of the Pacific and Australia plates, with the Pacific plate subducting westward beneath the Australia plate at the Tonga trench. At the latitude of the earthquake of September 29, 2009, the Pacific plate moves westward with respect to the interior of the Australia plate at a velocity of about 86 mm/year. The earthquake occurred near the northern end of a 3,000 km long segment of the Pacific/Australia plate boundary that trends north-northeast.; farther north of the earthquake’s source region, the plate boundary trends northwest and then west. The eastern edge of the broad Australia plate may be viewed as a collection of small plates or microplates that move with respect to each other and with respect to the Pacific plate and the Australia plate interior.

On the basis of currently available location and fault mechanism information, we infer that the September 29 earthquake occurred as a normal fault rupture on or near the outer rise of the subducting Pacific plate.

The broad-scale Australia/Pacific plate boundary is one of the most active earthquake regions in the world. Earthquakes occur on the thrust-fault boundary between the Australia and Pacific plates, within the Pacific plate on both sides of the trench, and within and on the boundaries of the small plates that compose the eastern edge of the overall Australia plate.

Comments

Sad news, and a difficult situation for the park and the islands. It sounds like the park had no advance warning of the tsunami.

This is definitely an isolated area, with limited emergency response resources. The park website includes the following advice for visitors considering a trip to the park:

The park's remote location, its lack of search and rescue capability, and the distance from expert medical care require extra precautions…Medical care is limited …Visitors who come down with serious medical needs should get to Hawaii, Australia, or New Zealand.

I used to work as a volunteer at the Pago Pago National Park Visitor Center located in the Pago Plaza building. It is such a terrible tragedy to see and read about the damage that has been caused not only in the visitor center area/pago pago but in American Samoa and Samoa overall. May God bless my people and get them through these tough times. I send my prayers out to all of pago pago's NPSA employees and volunteers. May God and peace be with you all.

Soifua & Mahalo

From InsideNPS Oct 1:
Shortly before 7 a.m. on Tuesday, September 29th, an 8.0 magnitude earthquake struck 120 miles from American Samoa, a U. S. territory with a population of approximately 65,000 people. The earthquake was followed by a tsunami that produced several large waves that destroyed the park’s visitor center and offices. All park employees and volunteers are accounted for and are safe. At least one employee's house and four employees' vehicles were destroyed by the tsunami. Fortunately, this event happened early enough in the day that most employees were not yet at work and were in areas of high ground that were unaffected by the wave impacts. The few employees who were at the office were able to run to the safety of high ground, although most of them had to run through water to get there. The park visitor center and all contents, including the park's curatorial collections, were destroyed. The entire park fleet of vehicles was destroyed with the exception of two vehicles. The extent of damage to park marine resources will not be known for some time. Undoubtedly there will be impacts to coral reefs and there will be significant amounts of debris in the water and along beaches. Most of the park terrestrial resources appear to be undamaged. Park staff initially assisted the U. S. Coast Guard with rescue and recovery operations on site and are currently engaged in assessing and providing for the well-being of NPS employees and volunteers. They have also been assessing damage to park facilities, salvaging equipment and cultural resources, and securing NPS property from looters. Park staff will be available to continue assisting with the broader FEMA-led recovery operation in the coming days. Park employees are doing a great job of keeping their spirits up and helping each other and the rest of the community through this difficult event. Special agent Neal Akana from Hawaii Volcanos National Park flew to American Samoa yesterday morning and has been acting as the NPS representative at the FEMA unified command meetings. He is working with superintendent Mike Reynolds to prepare for the arrival of the Western Incident Management Team, critical incident stress management personnel, and other support staff who will arrive tomorrow. A team of cultural resource specialists will be assisting with the assessment and recovery of cultural resources in the park and will likely assist with the broader recovery efforts on the islands.

Also from InsideNPS: the blog of a park marine biologist & his wife has more descriptions & photos:
http://tropicalbrowns.blogspot.com/2009/09/tsunami-in-american-samoa.html