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Relief effort kicks off for Solomons tsunami survivors; 20 dead, toll expected to rise

Survivors picked through ruined stores Tuesday looking for drinking water and food in a Solomon Islands town devastated by a tsunami, as an international relief effort made tentative first steps.

Thousands of people in the town of Gizo in the South Pacific country's far west spent Monday night sleeping under tarpaulins or the stars on a hill behind the town following a massive undersea earthquake that sent tsunami waves crashing through the town.

At least 20 people, including a bishop and three worshippers at a church, were killed in the Solomons and another five unconfirmed deaths were reported in neighboring Papua New Guinea. Officials said the toll was likely to rise further as a detailed aerial assessment was made of Gizo and surrounding villages where only scattered radio reports had been collected.

"I suspect there will be further deaths to report as the day progresses, unfortunately," deputy police commissioner Peter Marshall said.

Powerful aftershocks kept survivors' nerves on edge, feeding fears of another tsunami or that already weakened buildings could collapse. More than 25 aftershocks had shaken the region by noon Tuesday, including two of magnitude 6.2. Officials said another tsunami was not expected.

Police spokesman Mick Spinks said Tuesday at least 20 people had been confirmed dead in the Solomons from Monday's quake - initially measured by the U.S. Geological Survey at magnitude 7.6 and later raised to 8.1.

National Disaster Management Office spokesman Julian Makaa told Australian Broadcasting Corp. an initial damage assessment was "around 916 houses, and a very rough estimate of the people affected is around 5,000 people."

ABC reported from Papua New Guinea that a family of five had been washed away in that country's far east - the first reported deaths there. Government officials there could not confirm any casualties Tuesday.

A bishop and three worshippers were killed when a wave hit a church where up to 100 people were attending an ordination ceremony on the Solomons island of Simbo, a United Church official said.

A 53-year-old New Zealand man drowned trying to save his mother from the waves during a visit to Gizo, New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark said. His mother remained missing.

Alex Lokopio, premier of the Solomons' hardest-hit Western Province, said few of those left homeless had even basic supplies, and their situation would turn desperate within days without help.

"There is no food available" in the main settlements of Gizo and Noro, said Alfred Maesulia, a government spokesman in the capital, Honiara. "Some settlements have been completely wiped out by the waves."

Danny Kennedy, a dive shop operator, said teams of survivors had ventured into town looking for bottled water and other supplies - and found a mess.

"Unfortunately a lot of the stores, their cargo has fallen from the higher shelves and covered lower things, and the buildings are quite unstable," Kennedy told New Zealand's National Radio.

Marshall said officials would tolerate survivors taking goods they don't own until emergency supplies arrived.

"They are desperate times in Gizo," he said. "And we've got to be practical."

One police patrol boat carrying emergency supplies arrived in Gizo from Honiara overnight and three private charters were due on Tuesday. Australian and New Zealand military helicopters based in the Solomons as part of a security force also were expected to join relief operations.

The main airport, phone and power lines, and coastal roads remained damaged early Tuesday.

Witnesses reported a wall of water up to five meters (16 feet) high plowed into the coast five minutes after the massive earthquake, which knocked down buildings in Gizo.

Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare declared a national state of emergency and held meetings with his impoverished country's aid donors about getting help.

"We were lucky it happened during the day time and the people observed that the sea receded and that that was a sign that something was not right and most people moved to higher ground," Sogavare said.

New Zealand Defense Minister Phil Goff said a military C-130 cargo plane would fly to Solomon Islands Tuesday with tents, tarpaulins and food for several hundred people.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the world body had a humanitarian team ready to deploy to the Solomon Islands. The Australian government and the Red Cross also announced aid pledges.

The Solomon Islands is a poverty-wracked archipelago of more than 200 islands with a population of about 552,000 people that lies on the Pacific Basin's so-called "Ring of Fire," an arc of volcanos and fault lines where quakes frequently happen.

On July 21, 1975, a large tsunami hit Bougainville, killing an estimated 200 people, according to the U.S. Geological Survey and World Health Organization.