GIZO, Solomon Islands – Shops along the Solomon Islands' battered coastline reopened Monday as aid began trickling to the region's outer atolls, a week after an offshore earthquake sent walls of water slamming into the coast.
Vendors selling fruit and vegetables returned to their stalls along the main street of Gizo island for the first time since the magnitude-8.1 quake rumbled the Solomons' Western Province on April 2, killing at least 35 people and leaving 7,000 homeless.
The disaster destroyed several coastal villages and sent thousands of people scrambling to the hills, too frightened to return to their lowland homes.
But on Monday, fishermen selling their daily catch returned to Gizo's open-air marketplace — the first sign that the local residents were beginning to overcome their fear of the sea that has been their peoples' main source of food and income for centuries.
A handful of tourists also began returning to the island — a world renowned diving location.
"I think that's a really healing thing for the people here, because it's the first sign of life getting back to normal again," Red Cross spokeswoman Susie Chippendale said.
Meanwhile, after a slow start, the international relief aid that has been flowing into Gizo since Wednesday began filtering out to the region's more remote communities, many of which have received little or no assistance.
Red Cross boats braved stormy seas to deliver food, water and medical assistance to several outlying islands, while helicopter shuttled between Gizo and other far-flung atolls.
On the rugged, isolated island of Ranongga, villagers rowed dugout canoes to a Red Cross relief boat and loaded up with rice, water and clothing. Huge patches of coral lay exposed and dying around Ranongga after last week's quake, making boat landings more difficult than usual.
Children ran down onto black sand beaches to greet the arriving boats, which carried tons of rice, hundreds of liters of fresh water and donated clothes.
The island's residents were largely spared the devastating force of the tsunami, but huge landslides caused by the massive quake destroyed several subsistence gardens, leaving people with little or no short term food supply.
Meanwhile, medical clinics were set up and aid groups continued to dig pit toilets to try to control the threat of diseases such as malaria and dysentery.
The U.N. children's fund also announced plans to conduct a measles vaccination program for children aged between 6 months and 4 years as part of the effort.
"When you have people living really close together in camps, children are really vulnerable," said U.N. official Peter Muller.
Two barges joined several police boats that are being used around the clock to deliver or load supplies, said U.N. disaster coordinator Antoni Massella.
Axes, machetes and other tools that would help people rebuild their food gardens were due to arrive soon.
Radio broadcasts were also being considered to reassure people there was no further danger — a task made more difficult by regular aftershocks that have rattled the region since the disaster.
Official counts of the dead, missing and injured still vary. Muller said 33 bodies have been recovered and two people remain missing. The aid group World Vision set the count at 39.
All agree the number is unlikely to jump significantly. But some villagers have been burying the dead as they find them, and the true number of deaths may never be known.