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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, May 4, 2006

Tsunami alerts sent as far as Fiji, New Zealand

 •  Quake tests tsunami center

By Pesi Fonua
Associated Press

NUKU'ALOFA, Tonga The powerful earthquake that struck near the South Pacific nation of Tonga triggered tsunami warnings for as far away as Fiji and New Zealand.

There were no reports of injuries from the magnitude-7.9 temblor, about 95 miles south of Neiafu, Tonga, and 1,340 miles north-northeast of Auckland, New Zealand. Authorities lifted the warnings within two hours, after recording a wave of less than 2 feet.

The earthquake occurred at 4:26 a.m. today, Tongan time, about 34 miles below sea level.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center sent warnings to Tonga but Tonga says it did not receive any warnings (see related story). However, any warning probably would have been too late for Tongans if a major tsunami had come, because the epicenter was so close.

The Honolulu-based center's warning said it was possible a tsunami could strike Fiji within two hours of the quake and then, an hour later, New Zealand.

In Fiji, a tsunami warning alarm sounded in the capital, Suva. But authorities apparently failed to inform citizens, many on tiny and remote islands with poor communications.

At the Wakaya Club, a private luxury Fijian island resort where recent guests have included Rolling Stone guitarist Keith Richards, staff were alerted to the danger through satellite television news.

But the danger passed without the need to alert the guests or evacuate them to the island's high point, a resort employee said on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to make press statements.

In New Zealand, hundreds of residents on the country's east coast fled their homes after hearing media reports.

A spokesman for New Zealand's National Crisis Management Center, Allen Walley, said authorities did not issue a national civil defense warning.

"The Ministry of Civil Defense and Emergency Management was in contact with the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center throughout the process and was alerted to a possible tsunami," he said. "Overseas media reports had incorrectly suggested a threat and the need for evacuations."

Tonga escaped shaken but unscathed.

Andrew Stainlay said the quake shook him awake at his home in Nuku'alofa. The room was twisting and contorting and my cupboard smashed to the ground. ... When I got out of bed I was thrown against the wall," he said.

"We have no reports of injury or fatalities or of structural damage throughout the (Tonga Islands) group," said Mali'u Takai, deputy director of the Tonga's National Disaster Office. "There are broken windows in a few houses but that's about it."

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

"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," she said.

Power in the city was restored after two hours, but most phone lines were jammed by incoming calls.

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.