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Australia and New Zealand asked to assist Samoan disaster victims

ABC RADIO AUSTRALIA Updated 5 hours 22 minutes ago

Medical supplies, personnel and other emergency relief equipment is what Samoa appears to need immediately following the earthquake and tsunami. The Samoa National Disaster Committee has met -- and has approached Australia and New Zealand for help. Australia's Parliamentary Secretary for International Assistance Bob McMullan told Radio Australia's Michael Cavanagh -- the immediate need was to help provide back-up for those in Samoa -- and also to look at some other parts of the region which has suffered.

Presenter: Michael Cavanagh
Speaker: Australia's Parliamentary Secretary for International Assistance Bob McMullan

Listen:Windows Media
MCMULLAN: The immediate request from the committee is that they need medical assistance, medical supplies and medical personnel. I mean the hospitals are quite good there as you would know, but obviously they are overwhelmed by the volume and they have had to send a lot of people, decentralise a lot of people out to where the damage is, so we need some people to go and assist in the hospital and those sort of physical equipment and if we can get it personnel.

CAVANAGH: Getting those people in there, the infrastructure that is okay itself?

MCMULLAN: Yes in Samoa, the main airport is open and operating and we won't have any trouble getting into Samoa. Now whether there will be some difficulties into with the land transport to some of the regions that are affected that's still to be determined.

CAVANAGH: What other reports if any apart from the committee itself?

MCMULLAN: Well, the report suggests that there has been very severe damage on the south coast of the main island of Upolu and we're now getting reports of damage on the northern most island group of Tonga, and disturbing reports of loss of life in both countries, more in Samoa, but also in the Niua group at the very north of Tonga and we are seriously concerned about the loss of life, about the humanitarian consequences and the impact long term on both countries.

CAVANAGH: The logistics to meet the immediate response, Australia and New Zealand are the main two countries in the region that can react to this sort of thing. What work are you doing with New Zealand on this?

MCMULLAN: We are always in close contact with New Zealand and our emergency response officials are talking to theirs. The other countries potentially interested in assisting are France, because there are a number of French territories there and the United States of course because of American Samoa. But we are expecting that the United States will take of the very serious situation that appears to be emerging in American Samoa and they will expect Australia and New Zealand to take the lead in the rest of the Pacific.

CAVANAGH: What's your understanding about any damage apart from being caused by the tsunami, is it purely the result of the tsunami or the earthquake as well?

MCMULLAN: At the moment it is a bit early to say, but such a severe earthquake. It must have had some significant structural impact. Now people in Samoa are used to earthquakes and so the shocks don't cause mass damage normally, but 8 on the Richter Scale is a serious earthquake, so I think the reports are mainly of tsunami damage.

CAVANAGH: And the humanitarian problems as you say are immediate sense is medical. Anything specific that you know of in this instance to help in the hospital or just supplies and medical personnel?

MCMULLAN: I think we need some people to help in the hospital, not because the hospital is not usually well staffed, but because of the demands on the south coast where personnel have been sent from the hospital to assist in the villages that are affected, then it leaves a bit of a gap back at the hospital base. So it is possibly that that will be the detail and there will be medical supply requirements simply because these will be unprecedented demands. It is quite a strong health system. It is not as if they have no basis with which. Samoa is a well governed country. They will not be unable to respond, but no country of the size of Samoa could cope with a catastrophe of this scale however well governed it might be.

CAVANAGH: A lot of the efforts are concentrated on Samoa and that seems to be where most of the information is coming out from and we seem to know most about Samoa. What's your understanding of elsewhere either close to Samoa or in the wider region?

MCMULLAN: Well, all the reports other than Samoa and I will mention Tonga in a moment are that there has been no significant damage. I was worried about Tokelau, the low lying New Zealand territory reasonably close by, but the New Zealand Government has said that reports are of no serious damage and there is still a little bit of information about some parts of the Cook Islands, but we have recently had reports of serious damage in a remote part of Tonga, the northern most island group, the Niua group where 1,000 people live in these very remote islands, quite close to Samoa and the tsunami does appear to have done significant damage there and there are reports of serious loss of life somewhere between four of five or up to ten.

CAVANAGH: And what would Australia and New Zealand be doing in regards to that area?

MCMULLAN: Well, we have to wait. That is one place that is very difficult to get access to, because that is one place where the infrastructure has been damaged. The Tongan Government is sending a small aircraft for the purpose of doing an aerial assessment of the damage and then we'll respond to their request. We are of course in close contact with the Government of Tonga. But in terms of scale, it's a much smaller problem than the Samoan problem, but the location of it is very difficult. So if, should the Tongan Government need assistance, of course, like Samoa, they are friends and neighbours of ours and we will provide them whatever assistance they need. But it is not a big scale problem. The big difficulty there is they are very isolated.

CAVANAGH: This is immediate response. What do you see being needed long term and what would Australia expect to do there?

MCMULLAN: There is unquestionably a challenge for rebuilding of infrastructure and re-establishing some of the strong elements of the tourist industry. I mean in Samoa has a very strong and rapidly growing tourist industry. It's important for their economy and it is a beautiful place to visit and a very successful holiday resort. Well, some of the resorts have been damaged and so we will have to look at what infrastructure assistance Samoa will require to rebuild its capacity economically. It has been one of the success stories of the Pacific. It would be really sad to see it set back.

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