Looters are roaming almost unimpeded through the devastated streets of the capital of American Samoa, as police search for bodies following the deadly tsunami.
At least 27 people were killed in the South Pacific nation after an 8.0 magnitude earthquake triggered tsunamis which pounded into American Samoa and its neighbours, causing widespread destruction.
The regional death toll has risen to 144 and is expected to rise dramatically as survivors and authorities account for the many missing in nearby Samoa.
“We still have people out on search and rescue missions and we have 27 deaths so far confirmed. We have 2,488 displaced residents in relief shelters,” said homeland security spokeswoman Betty Ahsoon.
Pago Pago, the heart of American Samoa, bore the brunt of the tsunami with most shops and groundfloor businesses destroyed.
Looters appeared to be taking advantage of the chaos, Ahsoon said.
“Looting is a problem as a lot of stores and merchants have been destroyed.
Search for survivors ‘a priority’
“We have limited people to police the area as our first responders, including the police, are out assisting people affected.”
Ahsoon said the priority of emergency personnel, in addition to recovering bodies and searching for survivors, was to restore supplies of clean drinking water and electricity to the eastern districts.
A relief flight has arrived in Pago Pago, and emergency supplies and personnel were immediately dispatched to the worst-hit areas.
The aircraft was also reported to be carrying temporary morgue facilities as the main hospital had run out of space.
US President Barack Obama has declared a major disaster in the remote US outpost, offered his personal sympathies, and promised a “swift and aggressive” government response.
The US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) earlier said it was dispatching two disaster recovery teams to affected areas to assess the extent of the damage.