Thousands of panicked South Pacific islanders raced away from the coastline after three strong earthquakes rocked the region and generated a small tsunami Thursday, just over a week after a massive wave killed 178 people in the Samoas and Tonga.
There were no immediate reports of damage, and all tsunami warnings and watches were soon canceled. But people across the South Pacific took no chances, scrambling up hillsides and maneuvering through traffic-clogged streets to reach higher ground.
"There is panic here, too," Chris McKee, assistant director of the Geophysical Observatory in the Papua New Guinea capital, Port Moresby, told The Associated Press. "Offices have closed. People have rushed out onto the streets and are climbing hills. A lot of places have shut down. ... We tried to put the dampeners on it, but it was already out of hand."
The Hawaii-based Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued a regional tsunami warning for 11 nations and territories after a quake with a magnitude of 7.8 struck 183 miles (294 kilometers) northwest of the Vanuatu island of Santo at a depth of 21 miles (35 kilometers). Two other quakes of magnitude 7.7 and 7.3 followed in the same area.
The center canceled the tsunami warnings after sea-level readings indicated that the wave generated by the quakes was too small to cause much damage.
There were no immediate reports of injury or damage from officials in Vanuatu, a chain of 83 islands. It lies about 1,400 miles (2,200 kilometers) northeast of Sydney, Australia.
"We felt the quake — it shook the ground, but not very strongly," said a police officer in the town of Luganville on the island of Santo, the Vanuatu island nearest to the quakes' epicenter. The officer declined to give his name as he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Thursday's small tsunami came just over a week after a magnitude 8.3 quake sparked a large wave in the South Pacific that devastated coastal villages in Samoa, American Samoa and northern Tonga. The death toll from the Sept. 29 tsunami rose by five Thursday to 183, after searchers in Samoa found more bodies, said Vaosa Epa, chief executive in the office of Prime Minister and Cabinet. Another 32 people were killed in American Samoa and nine in Tonga.
That tragedy was fresh in the minds of residents of Tuvalu, a low-lying nation of eight coral atolls with about 10,000 people. Thousands fled inland after Thursday's alerts, some clustering around the government building in the capital, Funafuti — the only multistory building in the country.
In Samoa, where at least 142 were killed in the Sept. 29 tsunami, there was a sudden rush of people heading to the hills, resident Russell Hunter told the AP in the capital, Apia. Cars clogged the roads leading inland.
"People were genuinely afraid," said Hunter, editor of the Samoa Observer newspaper. "They saw what happened last week and didn't want to be part of that again."
Thursday's warnings also created worry in American Samoa. Residents of the coastal village of Utulei fled to the hills after hearing there was a tsunami watch for the U.S. territory. Schools, government buildings and other residents were also evacuated to higher ground.
In New Caledonia, officials warned residents with alert horns and text messages. Schools were evacuated along the east coast and on the nearby Loyalty Islands.
Seismologist Rafael Abreu with the U.S. Geological Survey in Golden, Colorado, said Thursday's quakes appear to be unrelated to the Sept. 29 quake near Samoa. The quakes occurred on different fault lines and the way the earth's plates moved in both events also differed, he said.
The second quake Thursday, just 15 minutes after the first, hit at the same depth but 21 miles (35 kilometers) farther north of Santo and Port Vila. The third was recorded nearly an hour later, 175 miles (280 kilometers) northwest of Santo at a depth of nine miles (15 kilometers).
Abreu said the second quake was originally measured at 7.3 but later upgraded to 7.7. The third was originally put at 7.1 but upgraded to 7.3.
Also Thursday morning, the U.S. Geological Survey reported a strong earthquake struck south of the Philippines.
The quake had a preliminary magnitude of 6.7 and was located in the Celebes Sea, 175 miles (282 kilometers) southeast of Jolo, Sulu Archipelago, and 730 miles (1,175 kilometers) south of Manila. The quake hit at 5:41 a.m. Thursday local time.
USGS did not report any damage or injuries.
Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.