Source AP ©

Epidemic breaks out on Solomon Islands after tsunami

Relief workers reported the first signs of disease Wednesday among survivors of a devastating earthquake and tsunami in the Solomon Islands, while aftershocks and transportation bottlenecks hampered aid efforts.

Some children in makeshift camps that have sprung up in hills behind towns hit by Monday's disaster have diarrhea, and the need for fresh drinking water is becoming urgent, the Red Cross said.

Other officials said residents were too scared to come down even if their houses were not among the almost 1,000 destroyed because bone-rattling jolts kept striking the zone - more than 50 since Monday's 8.1-magnitude shock. Authorities said there was no danger of another tsunami.

"People are in a panic because of the continuous tremors," said Rex Tara, a disaster management specialist with British-based aid agency Oxfam.

At least 28 people were killed, and authorities checked unconfirmed reports of further deaths, including six people buried in a quake-triggered landslide on Simbo island, Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare's office said.

Deputy police commissioner Peter Marshall said that while the death toll may continue to rise, the tally so far was "surprisingly low" given the damage.

Authorities had no firm figure for the missing, and floating bodies had been spotted by authorities conducting aerial surveys, but Marshall said, "there have been no sightings of large numbers of people who have perished."

Red Cross official Nancy Jolo said her agency had handed out all the emergency supplies it had stored in Gizo, the main town in the disaster zone, and was waiting for new supplies from a New Zealand military transport plane that landed late Tuesday in nearby Munda.

"The priority need right now is for water," Jolo told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio from Gizo. "What we are experiencing right now in some of the campsites is children starting to experience diarrhea."

Six doctors and 15 nurses from Honiara were among aid workers who arrived Wednesday at Gizo, where plans to reopen the airport the same day didn't pan out and the wharf remained badly damaged.

Many of the thousands left homeless faced a third day of scrounging for basic supplies in the rubble, where bodies were still being found under buildings knocked down by the quake and sludge deposited by the tsunami.

Devastation was widespread in Gizo and in surrounding coastal villages built on stilts, many of which remained cut off.

In Munda, a sizable town that was becoming the main aid distribution point because its airstrip was open, at least 300 people were staying in squalid conditions in hills behind the town.

Across the region, 5,600 people were homeless, the government said.

Solomon's deputy police commissioner Peter Marshall said some residents terrified by aftershocks were fleeing further into the jungle, making assessing aid needs and deliveries even harder.

"They're scared of the sea rising again," said Joceyn Lai, a Red Cross volunteer. "Everybody's traumatized."

One police patrol boat arrived in Gizo on Tuesday after traveling 10 hours from the capital, Honiara, with tents, tarps, food and water. Three other boats were to leave Honiara on Wednesday for Munda, chief government spokesman Alfred Maesulia told The Associated Press.

A New Zealand military transport plane unloaded a shipment of tarps, water and rations at Munda.

"We have not reached people as soon as we could ... because of the widespread nature of this particular disaster," said Fred Fakarii, chairman of the National Disaster Management Council.

Many canoes and other boats were sunk or washed away by the tsunami and fuel was contaminated with sea water, adding to the transportion woes, Western Province Premier Alex Lokopio said.

Australia, New Zealand, the United States and the United Nations are among those who offered aid.

Fakarii said officials had asked for two mobile hospitals from Australia and New Zealand. Hospitals at Gizo and Munda had been wrecked by the disaster, he said.

The quake, which struck 10 kilometers (6 miles) under the sea about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Gizo, set off alarms from Tokyo to Hawaii, testing procedures put in place after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that left 230,000 dead or missing in a dozen countries.

Gizo's proximity to the epicenter meant the destructive waves - up to 5 meters (16 feet) high - hit before an alarm could be sounded, rekindling debate about whether the multimillion-dollar warning systems installed after the 2004 tsunami are worth the cost.

No significant tsunami was reported Monday anywhere outside the Solomons, which are comprised of more than 200 islands with a population of about 552,000 people.

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