Samoa post tsunami field reconnaissance survey - Day 11

Posted on November 05 2009

Our field team became smaller today. Two team members head to American Samoa and then back to the mainland. It’s been seven days of working from before 7 AM to past 10 PM and we’ve become strongly bonded. It’s sort of a breaking of the “fellowship”. I’m also tired – the field days are so full that there is little time to transcribe notes, download and sort photos and, if the internet is working, try to keep on top of my day job. Right now I’m about 3 days behind.

Sundays in Samoa are for church, family and reflexion. I spend the day at the Hidden Gardens condensing what we’ve done into the outline of a report. Since our assignment in Samoa was to focus on community vulnerability and resilience, we’ve developed a framework that defines resilience and vulnerability as a process rather than a product. It covers both pre- and post-event components and short and long term perspectives. Perhaps the most important issue that has jumped out of our visits both here and in American Samoa is that most people tried to do the right thing. Some were spectacularly successful like the Sinalei Resort manager who had a siren, practiced evacuation drills, and sounded his siren on feeling the earthquake. He could not have performed any better and his prompt action likely saved hundreds of lives both at Sinalei and at nearby resorts where people could hear the siren. Most people, however, needed more than the single trigger of the earthquake shaking to get them to take action. Studies of human behavior have shown that many people need a second or third signal before they will respond. At Coconut Beach next to Sinalei, people didn’t respond to the shaking, but did to the combination of shaking and the neighboring siren. The most common second signal was seeing the water recede. The tide gauge recordings at both Apia and Pago Pago show that the first wave arrival was actually a small positive wave – the water rose initially. But the amplitude was very small and we haven’t talked to anyone who noticed it. This was followed by a substantial drawdown the sea floor exposed in many areas. Unlike many stories from Indian Ocean countries where people were drawn to the ocean by the receding water, everyone in both Samoa and American Samoa recognized this as a danger signal. But there was still a lot of confusion – confusion on how far inland or up to go, confusion about multiple waves. A number of people headed back into the inundation area after the first wave retreated – usually to look for relatives – and were surprised by a larger second or third wave.

I’ve been mulling over a number of themes that my teammates and I have noted over the past 5 days we’ve been in Samoa, and how the situation here differs from American Samoa. One topic I’m interested in looking into further is altruism. In every disaster there are stories of people taking action that puts themselves at risk for people who may be total strangers. While these stories sometimes are noted in the newspaper, I’m need to see if much work has been done on this topic from the natural disaster perspective. I’m only aware of altruism as an academic topic because of the work of the Oliners at HSU who have made a career of examining altruism in the context of the holocaust. I never thought of it before as having a relationship to natural disaster response – but now the connection seems obicous.

I’m not making much progress pulling together the report. It’s hard for me to work without internet access. I’m so accustomed to pulling up various web sites to fill in holes and answer questions. A diversion mid afternoon when a young woman shows up at the Hidden Garden to claim her luggage before flying back to New Zealand. In the course of our conversation about who we were, what we were doing and how long we were staying she tells me the Wednesday flight I’ve got from Pago Pag back to Honolulu has been cancelled. I’m hoping this is only a rumor – I’ll deal with it tomorrow when I’m back in American Samoa.

Samoa post tsunami field reconnaissance survey - Day 10

Posted on November 04 2009

Last full day of field work in Samoa. We made an early run to the flea market to look at how the tsunami was being commemorated. Tsunami lava lavas (sarongs) and t-shirts were being sold at a brisk clip. We’ve seen 6 variations so far – a simple date, “I survived the tsunami”, “morning of tears”, “tears of sadness”, “Trust in God tsunami”, and “stay away from tsunami”. I am particularly interested in how societies memorialize events like this it and if any of the methods become institutionalized. Stamping “tsunami” on cloth goods is one of the first of the memorial signs. Samoans print T-shirts for many events such as track meets, youth groups, and so forth, so it’s not surprising to see the tsunami goods showing up. Although the tsunami products were selling briskly in the flea market, only one person in our group has seen anyone wearing them and it is not clear if the intended market are tourists or residents.

Today our driver-guide is off with the two engineers in our group so we asked his sister, the owner of the place we are staying, to accompany us. She is a former Pan Am and United flight attended who grew up speaking both Samoan and English. Turns out she is a terrific translator. Her brother would often tend to give a one sentence translation after the interviewee had spoken for a number of minutes. Frustrating not being able to speak the language – so much is lost in translation. We also have the same meteorology trainee accompanying us today.

We drive along the north coast and around the east side of the island. First stop is the village of Amaile. It wasn’t affected by the tsunami but is a very important village in Samoan history and a very powerful family still lives there. It was interesting to me because it was intact and gave us a picture of what the coastal villages may have looked like before the tsunami. We began seeing damage just south of Amalie. First village we stopped at was Sale’a‘unaunua. We were fortunate in having a woman translator with us because we were an all female group and were able to talk to a group of young women that I don’t think would have been as willing to talk to us if we had been a mixed group. One of the women had gotten caught in the tsunami and her leg was stuck by debris. She was barely able to escape when the second wave came. They were aware that tsunamis could follow earthquakes but admitted that evacuating on feeling the earthquake would have been embarrassing and they didn’t want to appear foolish. Of course now they have no such reticence – any felt earthquake sends everyone inland.

The next village was Lalomanu at the SE tip of the island. This was one of the hardest hit villages – the lower parts of the town were completely erased and many people died. Almost everyone has moved away from the coastal area so at first we thought it would be hard to find someone to talk to. One part of the town is high and the houses survived. Our translator hailed a woman in front of one house in Samoan – she replied in English that she didn’t understand Samoan. She was the daughter of the people who lived in the house – a Samoan father and a Maori mother and lived in New Zealand. She arranged for her father to talk to us. He probably had the best view of the tsunami as anyone in his village. The earthquake was strong enough to cause some damage to his house. He was watching the ocean when he saw the water recede and thought that maybe the same thing was about to happen here as in Indonesia. But he was rooted to the spot and not able to move. He could hear a roar and see water piling up. His son finally grabbed him and pulled him to the front of his house. The tsunami surged through the house, reaching the roof line and stopped a few hundred yards in front of it. He lost all of his appliances and the house was filled with a foot of muck afterwards. His house was built only three years ago and had no serious structural damage but he doesn’t like living here any more. It takes him two beers to fall asleep. Several people have mentioned that drinking has increased since the tsunami. His wife is having a very hard time and will go back to New Zealand when his daughter leaves. He was very frustrated by the lack of information about what happened in the tsunami and the initial media reports that suggested the entire south coast had been destroyed.

The physical toll of the tsunami is striking. Even a month afterwards and the removal of much debris, the losses are startling. But the mental toll is also evident. We’ve met a number of people with close relatives that have left the country. While the Samoan village culture is very supportive of people who lost homes, a few people have told us they are concerned about those who are mentally struggling. There is a fear of being identified as crazy and the villages have few resources to help people with long lasting trauma. In most natural disasters, mental trauma expresses itself in a number of ways including an increase in child and spousal abuse, divorces, alcohol abuse, and crime. The areas hardest hit by the tsunami were also some of the poorest in the country and were under stress before the event. The biggest industry was tourism and all of the beach hotels and fales were destroyed.

The last village we visited was Tafatafa and a small resort with beach fales. At first glance we thought the tsunami had somehow missed this spot. Not a piece of debris remained on the beach or the wide lawns. A row of beach fales stood along the coast and the house back a few hundred yards from the coast looked ok. On closer inspection all the fales were brand new and the house foundations were seriously undermined. The owner turned out to be a relative of our interpreter and he explained that his two boats and all the fales had been destroyed in the tsunami and water had swept through his house. He recognized the ground shaking as a sign of a tsunami and got everyone in his family into a car and picked up some elderly neighbors and got them to safety. All of the cleanup and rebuilding had been done by the family – they had gotten no government assistance. They were ready to reopen for business. It was an uplifting way to end what had been a very hard day.

Samoa post tsunami field reconnaissance survey - Day 9

Posted on November 02 2009

A morning meeting with the government official who has been overseeing the scientific teams. The Samoan Government, UNESCO and ITIC developed “Terms of Reference” for all research groups working in Samoa to address. We got the ok to work in the country, but were asked to focus on two of the seven tasks defined:
6. Collect information on human and community vulnerability and resilience factors at work in different places: i.e., what made a particular community resilient or vulnerable?;
7. Where possible, to map the above information.
Other tasks included mapping inundation and water levels, measuring environmental and ecosystem impacts, collecting tsunami deposits, looking at damage to structures, and recording survivor stories. We were also asked to include a government official during all of our field work. We were assigned a young meteorologist in training who had been educated in New Zealand. He was very pleasant but it did mean changing our transportation plans. We had arranged a 4 person car and Samoan guide-interpreter which worked fine for the three of us. This added an hour delay while we arranged to rent a different car for the day.

Drove back to the south side of Upolo. Passed the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum on the way. Stevenson spent the last 5 years of his life on Upolo and is buried nearby on the peak of Mt. Vaea. Our first stop is Poutasi Village where 9 people died including 3 children. All villages in Samoa consist of a swath of land the runs from the coast to higher elevations in the mountains where plantations of coconuts, bananas and other crops are grown. Most people lived in houses near the coast before the tsunami, but many had sleeping fales (open air covered platforms) and other small structures in the plantation areas. Poutasi is particularly vulnerable because a river runs behind most of the coastal houses and the only access to higher ground is along a road running parallel to the beach and a bridge near the mouth of the river.

Most of the houses in Poutasi were flattened – all that remained were the concrete slab foundations. But one house right by the beach looked practically untouched and we wondered if it had been rebuilt. Most of the people who lived near the coast have moved up to the houses and fales in the plantation area and there was almost no one in what remained of the coastal part of the village. We were lucky – the man who owned the home was working on it so we were able to get the story of what happened during the tsunami and a clue to why the house had so little damage. The man’s mother lived in the home – his house was further inland. After feeling the earthquake, he ran to his mother’s home because he thought “something bad might happen”, and arrived just in time to see the water recede. He knew there was no time to get to high ground so he stationed his mother beneath the front porch on the landward side of the house and told her to hang on to the door and window frame. Just as he got her positioned, the first surge caught them. He was carried by the surge across the street and managed to grab a tree and climb up it. He could see his mother still hanging on to the house – the porch provided an air pocket for his mother. The second surge was larger, but she still managed to keep her position and both of them survived. The house was wood frame and only a few months old. He had added lots of cross bracing and the home was secured to the foundation. He had also reinforced the coastline in front of his house with basalt boulders. There was no coastal reinforcement on the adjacent home where erosion had undermined the structure.

Next we talked to a matai of Poutasi. He and his son were restoring the boulders around a family grave. In Samoa, relatives are buried in front of the home. It is the responsibility of the children to maintain the grave sites of their ancestors. The graves are also proof of ownership in a country where there are no deeds and titles. Throughout Poutasi and elsewhere in the damaged areas, the graves were the first structures to be cleaned and restored – and the sight of a newly whitewashed family tomb topped with bright flowers is a jarring contrast to the destroyed structures around it. The matai lost three of his grandchildren in the tsunami. The earthquake woke him up. His son, daughter and three grandchildren were getting ready to go to school and had gotten into the cab of a truck. He got into the back. The tsunami caught the truck and rolled it. The three adults survived but the children didn’t. After the tsunami, some people from higher up or other villages came down to the damaged areas to help find the missing. In some cases, they also helped themselves to any belongings they found in the damaged areas. This turned out to be a recurring theme – the “gaoi” (cheater, thief), who came into damaged areas as soon as the water retreated. The matai said that no one is thinking of rebuilding right now – everyone is scared and staying up in the plantation areas. They might only have guest fales in the low areas – places for people to sit and visit during the day – and have all the residents in the plantations. The Samoan village structure has several advantages in responding to a tsunami. All of the villages have land up high, everyone in the village group and anyone in the village can use the upland land as long as the matais approve. This is the first major disaster that I have visited where there are no relief camps or shelters for the simple reason that everyone has relatives they can stay with.

Samoa post-tsunami field reconnaissance survey - Day 8

Posted on November 01 2009

Today was a change islands and countries. We flew Polynesian Airlines from Pago Pago to Apia in an 18 passenger prop plane that flew low enough to not need pressurization of air conditioning. No security screening and we can carry as many liquids on board as we wish. Checking in involves getting on a scale with all your luggage so they know the total cargo weight. I had a front row seat and there was no door to the cockpit so I could watch the pilot and the controls. We were able to see some of the tsunami-damaged areas on the east end of Tutuila (the main populated island of American Samoa). Much of Tutuilla is steep and the damaged areas were confined to pockets of low lying villages near the mouths of coastal rivers. The flight is just over 30 minutes. We can see some of the damaged areas along the SE coast of Upolo, the more populated eastern island of Samoa. Even from afar, the damage looks more continuous than on Tutuila. Apia is located on the north side of Upolo.

As in American Samoa, first on our itinerary is to introduce ourselves to UNESCO and government officials to sanction our field effort. First is a meeting with Jan Steffan, the UNESCO science coordinator for the Pacific region and the interface between scientific teams and the Samoan government. He had spent two years in Indonesia before this assignment and had spent much time in Padang in the aftermath of the 2004 Andaman-Sumatra earthquake and tsunami. He knew several of the people I had worked with on the 2005 Sumatra post-tsunami survey. We explained the purpose of our trip and how our work was not just a repeat of the previous team efforts. He agreed that our expertise and focus would add to what had already been done and forwarded his approval to the Samoan Government. We have an appointment to meet with an official of the Department of Environment and Meteorology tomorrow morning for the final ok.

After the meeting, there wasn’t much time left for work. We took a quick drive over to the south side of the island and looked at some of the areas that were hit. Samoa consists of two main islands Upolo and Savai’I both of which are larger than Tutuila. The population is more thant 2.5 times larger than American Samoa. Upolo was the hardest hit by the tsunami. Unlike Tutuila which was located nearly perpendicular to the orientation of the earthquake fault that caused the tsunami, Upolo was a little to the west of the maximum wave energy. Major damage was confined to the SE coast and no damage occurred on the north coast where Apia and the most populated part of Samoa is located. If a future tsunami generating event has a slightly different orientation, the outcome for Apia could be different. One of the major needs for both Samoa and American Samoa is a credible tsunami hazard map that addresses the likely maximum inundation for tsunami sources both nearby and elsewhere in the Pacific. It is very difficult to locate evacuation sites and evacuation routes if you don’t know where the safe areas are. On September 29, many people over-evacuated, driving as high up as they could, causing traffic problems. The lack of a well defined evacuation zone also may have encouraged people to use cars to evacuate as they didn’t realize that in many cases they didn’t need to go far to be in a safe area. Hazard assessments are based on numerical modeling efforts, past tsunami inundation and water height measurements and, when available, paleotsunami deposits. All of this information needs to be pulled together to see if what happened on September 29 was the worst likely event here, or what might produce a greater impact.

We looked at the Coconut Beach Resort near Maninoa. This was a well-landscaped, high-class resort with a beautiful beach and spa that catered to international visitors. There were about 90 guests on September 29. The earthquake was felt strongly but no one connected the earthquake and a possible tsunami. Fortunately the nearby resort of Sinelei was run by a general manager who was more aware to the relationship between shaking and tsunamis. Sinelei had installed a siren and also practiced evacuation drills. They also had developed a protocol for evacuation events with a staff person grabbing a list of the clients. On September 29, Sinalei was able to quickly ascertain that two guests had not left their rooms and staff were able to find them and help them evacuate before the worst surge arrived. People at nearby resorts including Coconut Beach heard the alarm and all but one person was able to escape. One woman tripped while evacuating and was caught in the water. Coconut Beach also provided an interesting example of tree resistance to the force of the water. Smaller diameter trees were bent while the larger ones resisted the flow. Although Coconut Beach did not have plans for a tsunami, they did respond quickly after the event – and were the first to arrive at the hospital, to deposit the 12 injured guests. They were quickly rebuilding and hope to be open for a limited number of guests in February – and they plan to include information about natural tsunami warnings in guest literature.

Samoa post tsunami field reconnaissance survey - Day 7

Posted on October 30 2009

We’ve become acclimated to life in Alega. The sound of the waves is wonderful to sleep too – although people who experienced the tsunami find it traumatic and few people have returned to living in the harder hit coastal communities even if their home wasn’t damaged.

Post event surveys are a mix of meetings, field work, interviews, dealing with set backs, and logistical planning. This morning was spent dealing with our travel plans to Samoa and getting and official ok from the Samoan government to work there. Flying from Pago Pago to Apia (a 30 minute flight) is not something you can just book online. We spent much of the morning at the airport afrranging the flight schedules for 5 people with 4 different itineraries. There are 3 carriers – one that has 5 flights a day but evidently just went out of business – their office is dark and they don’t return calls. One with pressurized cabins, AC and “large” planes that carry 30 people but they have run out of fuel and aren’t flying for the next 2 days. And finally Polynesian Air which has flying culverts but is still in business and has fuel. Apparent success – we’ll find out for sure tomorrow.

More logistics – calls to the director of the International Tsunami Information Center – a NOAA funded organization that now works through UNESCO to coordinate tsunami preparedness efforts throughout the world. For the first time, UNESCO has developed a protocol for visiting scientific teams responding to the Samoa tsunami event. It-s important for reconnaissance teams to collaborate with in-country scientists and other researchers and government officials. Over 60 international researchers have visited Samoa since the tsunami including teams from Japan, the US, Australia and New Zealand. A team from Cambridge, England is due to arrive the day I leave. Coordination is also important to avoid duplication of efforts and build on the findings of other groups. UNESCO is also committed to making sure that these teams share their information with the host country so that they benefit from the research teams’ efforts. Some groups in both this and past events have operated outside of government sanction – partly because of the need to quickly get perishable information, and sometimes because the official route can be cumbersome. In 1998 after the Papua New Guinea tsunami, I was all set to leave with a group of 5 international scientists when the PNG government pulled our permission 24 hours before the plane left. It took a month to solve the problem and in the end only 2 of us were able to go. I think we’ve got our bases covered this time, but one never knows.

We spent the afternoon looking at the hardest hit areas on the western end of the island and talking to survivors. Don Vargo of American Samoa Community College provided a Ford Tundra capable of making it over the steep roads and two research assistants to drive and provide translation. First to Paloa on the NW tip of the island where only one home in the coastal portion of the village survived without damage and one person died. The earthquake occurred around 6:40 AM and children were just leaving their homes to go to school. One mother tried to get her kids into a car when she saw the water withdraw. The coastal road parallels the coast and driving would have increased their exposure. Fortunately the oldest child had studied about tsunamis and insisted they run up the hill behind their house.

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