NBC, msnbc.com and news services
updated 10/7/2009 9:00:53 PM ET 2009-10-08T01:00:53

A powerful magnitude 7.8 earthquake rocked the South Pacific near the Vanuatu archipelago Thursday morning, the U.S. Geological Survey reported, triggering a regional tsunami alert that was later canceled.

The quake struck 183 miles northwest of the Vanuatu island of Santo, and 354 miles northwest of the capital of Port Vila, at a depth of 21 miles. An aftershock with a 7.1 magnitude also was reported.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center immediately issued a regional tsunami warning for 11 nations and territories, including Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Nauru, Fiji and Kiribati. Officials expanded the tsunami warning to include Australia, New Zealand and Indonesia. But that warning was cancelled about two hours later with NBC News reporting the tsunami wave generated was less than 4 inches.

There were no immediate reports of injury or damage from officials in Vanuatu, a chain of 83 islands. It lies just over 1,400 miles northeast of Sydney, Australia.

"We have no damage reports yet, but we have had no contact with Santo so far," Vanuatu police spokesman Take Rakau told The Associated Press.

While the quakes were not felt in Port Vila, he said Santo, with its capital of Luganville, "most likely could have felt them."

Authorities in New Caledonia, a French territory, were evacuating people from the island's eastern shore and from the nearby Loyalty Islands to higher ground, local police said.

A police spokesman in the capital, Noumea, said the nation was bracing for a tsunami to hit around 8:15 p.m. EDT on Thursday.

The latest warning comes just less than two weeks after a quake of magnitude 8.3 struck the South Pacific near Samoa, sparking tsunami waves that killed at least 178 people and devastated coastal villages in Samoa, American Samoa and in northern Tonga.

Video: Earthquakes rattle south Pacific Adrian Mourges, a member of a European Union delegation visiting Vanuatu's capital Port Vila, told NBC News he felt shaking for about 20 seconds. He said he had not heard if authorities in Vanuatu had issued a tsunami alert.

The islands of Vanuatu have a disaster prevention system administered by the government — usually for the typhoon season, which is just starting, Mourges said. There has been a lot of building along the shorelines around Port Vila, which is protected from the ocean by a large bay, he told NBC.

'Running into the hills'
A resident of Luganville on the southern coast of Vanuatu's Espiritu Santo island said the quake had shaken the town, but there were no reports of damage or change in sea level.

"People were frightened and some ran out of the building onto the street because it was so strong," a Florence Cari, receptionist at the Hotel Santo told Reuters by telephone. "The sea has not changed but we don't know if something will happen."

A reporter at the Daily Post newspaper in Port Vila said people on Vanuatu's Espiritu Santo island were running for higher ground. "We have had reports that the kids are running into the hills," she said.

Vanuatu is a chain of 83 small volcanic islands in the southwest Pacific Ocean, between Fiji and New Caledonia, with a population of roughly 235,000. Its land area is about the size of Connecticut.

Sulu archipelago shakes
Meanwhile, the U.S. Geological Survey reported a strong earthquake struck south of the Philippines on Thursday morning local time.

The epicenter of the quake, which struck at 5:41 a.m., was located 184 miles southeast of Jolo on the Sulu archipelago, the U.S. Geological Survey said.

The depth was 362.2 miles, the agency said.

"It was too deep to affect the Philippines," Renato Solidum, head of the Philippine Institute of vulcanology and Seismology, told Reuters. He said there was no likelihood of a tsunami.

This is a developing story. Check back for more details.

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