Tis The Season: Huge quake hits Solomon Islands

SYDNEY/WELLINGTON, Dec 9 (Reuters) – A powerful 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck off the Solomon Islands early on Friday, but there were no immediate reports of casualties and a tsunami warning for a wide swathe of the South Pacific was later lifted.

Solomon Islands National Disaster Management Office director Loti Yates said he received reports of collapsed buildings on Malaita, an island near the epicenter of the massive undersea quake, which had initially prompted a tsunami watch as far afield as Hawaii.

“Most houses are built by traditional materials, so some houses are reported to have been damaged in south Malaita but the extent is not known,” Yates told Reuters by telephone.

He said several villages had evacuated to higher ground, but that there were no reports of deaths. A helicopter had been sent to survey the damage at Malaita, which is home to about a quarter of the Solomon Islands population of 600,000, Yates added.

The U.S. Geological Survey downgraded the quake, which struck at 4:38 a.m. local time (1738 GMT Thursday), to magnitude 7.8 from an original reading of 8.0. It put the depth at around 40 km (25 miles).

The U.S.-based Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC) had issued warnings for the Solomon Islands and neighboring island chains of a potentially hazardous tsunami, but a couple of hours after the quake it said the threat had passed.

An initial tsunami watch alert for Hawaii had earlier been canceled. Authorities in New Caledonia ordered people on the east coast and in the Loyalty islands to move to higher ground.

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