LALOMANU, Samoa (AFP) – Emergency workers have given up hope of finding more survivors from the horrific Samoan tsunami as its feared death toll climbed toward 190.
While thousands of homeless huddled in makeshift hillside camps, officials said the massive international aid effort had switched from rescuing people to recovering bloated corpses.
"It’s no longer a rescue effort, it’s more like recovery and finding out what’s happened in some remote villages," a Samoan disaster management official told AFP.
"There are a lot of homeless people, thousands probably. Eighteen percent of the entire population is affected in some way."
Samoa declared a national disaster after Tuesday’s giant 8.0 magnitude earthquake – the worst in 90 years – churned up waves between three and 7.5 metres high (10 and 25 feet) which pounded sleepy South Pacific villages and popular tourist resorts.
As distraught residents worked to salvage possessions and use bits of their destroyed homes for shelter, officials pegged the infrastructure damage bill at 36 million dollars.
In the once-idyllic tourism hotspot of Lalomanu, there were heart-rending scenes as five dead children were found – including one up in a tree – and the body of a Western woman was pulled from the rubble of a resort.
A New Zealand air force Orion has also located bloated bodies swept out to sea as it scours the debris-strewn shoreline, officials said.
"I don’t think anybody’s going to be found alive at this point," Guretti Wulf, head of Red Cross relief operations at Lalomanu hospital, told AFP.
Samoan disaster officials feared up to 150 people may have been killed, which would bring the total number dead across the region to 190, including 31 in neighbouring American Samoa and nine in Tonga. The disaster’s confirmed death toll is 155.
"The number of dead is higher. Some villagers have buried their relatives quickly," an official said.
"There are still a lot of families searching in the mangrove areas and the Orion is undertaking the sea search. They are still finding more bodies."
Officials in American Samoa, about 100 kilometres from Samoa, said 31 had been killed in the remote US outpost, but that a 12-year-old Korean girl was missing following the disaster.
In Tonga, a government spokesman said two more people had been confirmed dead after the tsunami hit its small northern island of Niuatoputapu, bringing the total number of deaths there to nine.
"There are nine people confirmed dead," he told AFP. "We are confident that everyone has been accounted for," he added.
More than half of homes on the island, which has a population of about 950, were damaged by the waves with many washed away, he said.
Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi said the tragedy could have been even worse if the tsunami had struck at night.
"If it had come in the dark and the tide was high, the number of people (who) died would have been far, far greater," he said.
Aid workers carried out a door-to-door survey of the missing, as anxious relatives feared the worst.
But in a rare lighter moment, a two-day-old baby boy who survived the deadly waves was named ‘Tsunami’ in honour of his feat. Related article: Baby Tsunami
A powerful 6.3-magnitude earthquake struck in seas off Tonga and the Samoan islands on Friday but no immediate tsunami alert was issued by the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre in Hawaii and Australian experts said the tremor was likely too small to create another deadly wave.
"I don’t think there is a particular tsunami danger from that earthquake," Geoscience Australia seismologist Phil Cummins told AFP.
The US Geological Survey said the earthquake, at a shallow depth of just 10 kilometres (six miles), struck 242 kilometres (151 miles) off Tonga’s northwest island of Neiafu.
The epicentre was 377 kilometres from American Samoa capital Pago Pago, which was hard-hit by this week’s 8.0 earthquake and tsunami.
Dozens of aftershocks have rocked the region since giant waves smashed the South Pacific islands on Wednesday.