HONIARA – A major 8.0 magnitude earthquake hit the Solomon Islands Wednesday, reportedly flattening three villages, as small tsunami waves lapped Pacific coastlines and emergency sirens blared evacuation warnings.
A quake-generated wave of just under one metre reached part of the Solomons, and Vanuatu and New Caledonia also reported rising sea levels, before a region-wide tsunami alert was lifted.
Sirens were heard in Fiji while the alert remained in place, locals said.
"Chaos in the streets of Suva as everyone tries to avoid the tsunami!!" tweeted Ratu Nemani Tebana from the Fiji capital Suva.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre cancelled its regional alert at 0350 GMT, about two and a half hours after the powerful quake struck at 0112 GMT near the Santa Cruz Islands in the Solomons.
The US Geological Survey said the quake hit the Santa Cruz Islands, which have been rocked by a series of strong tremors over the past week, at a shallow depth of 5.8km.
Two powerful aftershocks of 6.4 and 6.6 magnitude were also recorded.
"Sea level readings indicate a tsunami was generated," the Hawaii-based Pacific centre said after the 8.0 quake, before lifting its tsunami alert for several island nations.
Australia's earthquake monitoring agency and the Pacific centre said the biggest tsunami wave was measured at 91 centimetres, at Lata, on the main Santa Cruz island of Ndende.
Locals in the Solomons capital Honiara, 580km from the epicentre, said the quake was not felt there, but some villages on the Santa Cruz islands were destroyed, according to a hospital director.
"The information we are getting is that some villages west and south of Lata along the coast have been destroyed, although we cannot confirm this yet," said the director of nursing at Lata Hospital.
"There was continuous shaking in Lata but no damaged buildings here," he added.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation cited emergency service authorities in the Solomons as saying three villages were destroyed by the quake. Officials could not be reached for confirmation, with phone lines down.
Hospital director Augustine Bilve said patients were being evacuated to prepare for any injured from the villages along the coast.
"We were told that after the shaking, waves came to the villages. So far, we are waiting in Lata and are evacuating patients in case there are any casualties."
A staff member at the Solomons National Disaster Management Office said officials were concerned about the eastern province of Temotu, which includes the Santa Cruz islands.
"That's the province, which if it is going to have an effect, then they will be the first people to be impacted," said the official, who did not wish to be named.
"They felt the quake."
He added that the national disaster operation centre had been activated and officials in Honiara were trying to contact those in Temotu province.
The Solomon Islands are part of the "Ring of Fire," a zone of tectonic activity around the Pacific Ocean that is subject to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.
Before it was lifted, the Pacific centre's tsunami warning was in effect for the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Tuvalu, New Caledonia, Kosrae, Fiji, Kiribati, and Wallis and Futuna. -- AFP