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UN officials express concern over loss of life in wake of Pacific island tsunami

UN officials express concern over loss of life in wake of Pacific island tsunami

United Nations officials today voiced great concern over the mounting death toll following the tsunami that struck a group of islands in the South Pacific on Tuesday, as rescue and emergency relief efforts gather pace.

A total of 110 people have been killed in Samoa to date and 146 injured as a result of the tsunami – triggered by a powerful 8.0 magnitude earthquake on the ocean bed – while 19 deaths in American Samoa and seven in the Tongan island of Niuatoputapu have been reported, according to UN Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes.

The number of dead is expected to rise as search and rescue operations continue to pull bodies from under the rubble left in the wake of the waves, Mr. Holmes, who also heads the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), told reporters in New York.

A four-member UN disaster assessment and coordination (UNDAC) team has arrived in Samoa, which has suffered extensive damage to homes, community buildings, resorts, roads, power lines and water supply close to coastal areas.

The survivors of the tsunami, which reportedly sent waves as high as six metres crashing down on the islands, are in urgent need of emergency medical care along with water, food, and shelter, said Mr. Holmes.

UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura said he was “deeply distressed by the losses provoked by this most recent tsunami in the Pacific Ocean,” in a message released by the agency, urging governments to strengthen efforts to protect coastal communities.

“National authorities must maintain and constantly improve their communications and warning systems to help protect coastal populations, which are inevitably vulnerable to such phenomena,” said Mr. Matsuura.

He said that while the UNESCO-coordinated early warning system clearly raised the alarm 16 minutes after the earthquake struck, there was not time for coastal populations to evacuate.

Mr. Matsuura said that the tragic deaths of 29 September underscored the importance for governments to improve emergency response mechanisms and public awareness so that all communities benefit from the advance warning that is available at the regional level.

The number and scale of natural disasters to sweep over the region in the last week is almost unprecedented, said the head of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP). On top of the tsunami, Typhoon Ketsana has swamped the Philippines and two massive earthquakes have rocked the Indonesian island of Sumatra since 26 September.

“The resulting loss of lives, casualties and destruction to property is heartbreaking,” said ESCAP Executive Director Noeleen Heyzer.

“The disasters of the past week remind us that Asia Pacific is the world’s disaster hot spot,” said Ms. Heyzer, calling for greater investment in disaster preparedness. “A person living in Asia Pacific is four times more likely to be affected by natural disasters than someone living in Africa and 25 times more likely than someone living in Europe or North America.”

The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and World Health Organization (WHO) also announced that they will dispatch emergency relief staff in the area to help with recovery efforts.

UNICEF Pacific Representative Isiye Ndombi expressed shock over the scale of destruction of the tsunami and the resulting grief to the people of Samoa and Tonga.

“Our hearts and minds are with the children and families of Samoa and Tonga right now,” said Dr. Ndombi. “This is a tragedy of unbelievable proportions.”

“From past experiences we know that it is especially important that we work to immediately immunize children against measles, ensure the protection of women and children who are especially vulnerable now, and establish good sanitation facilities to prevent outbreak of diseases,” he added.