Huge quake hits Solomon Islands, tsunami alert lifted

SYDNEY/WELLINGTON (REUTERS) – A powerful 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck off the Solomon Islands early on Friday (Dec 9), but there were no immediate reports of casualties and a tsunami warning for a wide swathe of the South Pacific was later lifted.

Solomon Islands National Disaster Management Office director Loti Yates said he had received reports of collapsed buildings in villages in Makira, the island closest to the epicentre of the massive undersea quake, which had initially prompted a tsunami watch as far afield as Hawaii.

“Villages that we have made contact with have evacuated, actually most of the communities that we have spoken with had already evacuated,” Yates told Reuters.

“They called us from the hills, which is good.” Yates said he had not received any reports of deaths.

The US Geological Survey downgraded the quake, which struck at 4.38am (1.38am Singapore time), to magnitude 7.8 from an original reading of 8.0. It put the depth at around 40km.

The US-based Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre (PTWC) had issued warnings for the Solomon Islands and neighbouring island chains of a potentially hazardous tsunami, but a couple of hours after the quake it said the threat had passed.

An initial tsunami watch alert for Hawaii had earlier been cancelled.

John Pirimare, a resident on Nafinua Island, spoke to Reuters from up the hills where he evacuated immediately after the quake with around 500 to 600 villagers after they received the tsunami warning on their phones.

“It was a great shock but no serious damage,” Pirimare said.“Most of the people went straight here; and we won’t leave until the tsunami threat has passed.”

Yates said the authorities in the Solomons would start to assess the damage as morning dawned. Some 50,000 people live in Makira Province, the closest to the epicentre of the quake.

“It’s not yet clear what sort of impact this has had,” Yates said. “It was dark so it is just now getting light and we can try and assess the damage.”

James Samani, duty manager at the Solomon Kitano Mendana Hotel in the capital Honiara, said the earthquake was strongly felt but the hotel was not damaged.

“We felt it big and strong in Honiara, but at the moment here in the hotel all the guests are in the lobby,” Samani told Reuters.

Australia said there was no risk to its coastlines. New Zealand cancelled a marine and beach threat warning.