Page last updated at 11:18 GMT, Monday, 2 April 2007 12:18 UK

Gizo at centre of tsunami fears

View over Gizo to sea. Picture from Simon Thornton
Gizo is a fishing village and diving centre in the Solomon Islands

When a magnitude 8.0 tsunami crashed ashore on the western Solomon Islands, it hit a remote, poverty-stricken region.

Made up of volcanic islands and coral atolls, sitting on the notorious Pacific "Ring of Fire", the area is so isolated that even many hours after the disaster, it was still very difficult to assess the extent of the damage or the number of people who lost their lives.

But there were reports of extensive damage to Gizo, the second largest town in the Solomons, which has an estimated 10,000 residents.

Known to tourists as the country's main diving centre, much of the town - which is located on a relatively small volcanic island called Ghizo - is barely above sea level.

Hospital inundated

Many of the houses are on or near the seafront, giving the buildings little chance of escaping the huge waves that hit the coastline on Tuesday morning.

Map of Solomon Islands

"It was just like a real extreme tide," dive shop owner Danny Kennedy told the Associated Press. "The water just came up probably about four to five metres above sea level, and kind of just went up into the communities and doused everything."

Initial reports said the town's hospital had been inundated with water, and government offices had also been damaged. Little was known about the damage to the nearby coral reefs.

Thousands of people are thought to have escaped up a steep hill which forms a backdrop to the town.

According to the charity World Vision, which operates in the area, many people have now been left homeless and without clean drinking water, as many of the town's water tanks - based on the hill - collapsed due to the force of the earthquake.

Coastal villages

It is not just Gizo that has been affected, though.

Residents of nearby Simbo, Choiseul and Ranunga islands have also reported deaths and widespread destruction, and there are many other areas which could well have been affected although details are still sketchy.

View of typical homes on island near Gizo. Picture from Louise Hunt
Many houses in Western Province are built of bamboo and palm

Approximately 85% of the Solomons' 500,000 population live in rural areas, and the western province - where the disaster occurred - is one of the most remote parts of the country.

Receiving accurate information from villages - many of which are in low-lying coastal areas - is difficult at the best of times, mostly reliant on two-way radio links and satellite communications.

David Leeming, who runs a rural community communications system called the People First Network - using radios with modems to improve email access in remote areas - has spent the day receiving some of the limited information from the area, and he said initial indications were not good.

"From what we're hearing from people, it looks like tens of thousands of people could be adversely affected by this," he said, although he stressed that it was still far too early to give definite figures.

"In terms of this country, this tsunami is a major disaster," he said.

video and audio news
BBC correspondent on the devastation caused

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