msnbc.com news services
updated 8/10/2010 3:58:34 AM ET 2010-08-10T07:58:34

Panicked residents of Vanuatu raced for higher ground after a powerful earthquake rattled the South Pacific island nation and generated a small tsunami Tuesday.

"It was quite a significant earthquake, and we're still having a few aftershocks," Ben McKenzie of the New Zealand High Commission told The Associated Press by phone from Port Vila.

The 9-inch tsunami was recorded off the capital Port Vila, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said.

Police said there were no immediate reports of major damage or injuries after the 7.5 magnitude quake, though buildings shook and power lines were down.

Police spokesman John Frat told the Associated Press described the temblor as "a very sharp quake — it was the worst I have felt in my life."

"Many people left the center of town and went to higher places, fearing a tsunami," he said by telephone from Port Vila. "We're still experiencing sharp aftershocks and all communications were lost for a time, but things are coming back to normal now."

The four-story office building housing the New Zealand High Commission suffered some damage, said McKenzie, first secretary at the New Zealand diplomatic post.

Office shelves and ceiling tiles fell down and computers were "thrown across the office" by the jolt, he said.

"We're trying to ensure everybody is safe and we're evacuating the building" to check that it's not "structurally damaged," McKenzie said.

'Everybody fled'
Joel Pari, a worker at Port Vila's Trading Post newspaper, said they had not heard any reports of injury or major damage following the quake.

"But it was really strong — it really shook the buildings and everybody fled outside and to higher ground in case of a tsunami," he said.

The government in the nearby French territory of New Caledonia also advised citizens to be vigilant.

Both Vanuatu and New Caledonia lie close to the so-called "Pacific Ring of Fire", which is a center for seismic activity due to constant friction between geologic plates.

The quake hit about 25 miles northwest of Port Vila at a depth of 22 miles, the U.S. Geological Survey said.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this story.

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