PAGO PAGO, American Samoa (NBC) - A big and powerful earthquake of 8.0 or larger hit the South Pacific Tuesday morning. It was so big; it touched off warnings and a lot of anxiety over a huge area of our planet. An underwater event this large touches off an awful kind of waiting period where mankind is powerless over the forces of nature
The earthquake hit south of American Samoa, a vulnerable bit of land about the size of Washington DC, the shock waves spreading out over a vast area.
They are still counting the numbers of dead and injured. There are unofficial reports of 40 dead. That number is expected to go much higher as rescuers reach some of the outlying villages that were inundated with water, sweeping people and vehicles out to sea.
The islands of Samoa and American Samoa are home to about 300,000 people. Immediately the alert went out for residents of low-lying areas of the Samoan coast to get out of the way and flee to higher ground. A businessman living in American Samoa talked of losing one of his employees.
"A night watchman in one of my stores apparently has died. He got caught in the water" said Peter Crispin.
From Washington, American Samoa's representative in the US Congress said he'd been in touch with constituents at home.
"We do have fatalities and severe damages especially to the main town of Pago Pago" said Representative Eni F.H. Faleomavega.
The owner of a hotel in Western Samoa told NBC News that one of their guests was missing after the hotel took a direct hit. For a time, places as far away as the Hawaiian Islands were put under a tsunami watch.
"We are warning anyone around the beaches at 1:00 PM Hawaii time to get out of the water and stay away from the coast" said Tracy Gladden, a reporter at KHNL-TV in Honolulu.
fficials feared a repeat of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed over 230,000 people in 11 countries. That tsunami was from a magnitude nine earthquake. Today's resulted in a magnitude eight range, a big difference according to scientists.
"A magnitude nine produces 32 times energy as a magnitude eight" said USGS senior scientist Paul Earle.
The quake struck at a depth of 20 miles. Some say it went on for three to five minutes, followed by sequence of five big ocean waves.