‘Samoa will remember this day in her heart for ever’

Bloggers and citizen journalists are reacting to the massive earthquake and subsequent Tsunami that struck both Samoa and American Samoa, destroying crops, property and killing an estimated 150 people.

Shortly before 7 am local time Wednesday, September 30, an earthquake measuring 8.3 on the Richter scale hit 120 miles off Apia, Samoa’s capital. Almost immediately giant waves at least twenty feet high hit both countries.

The shockwaves immediately spread across the Pacific, where governments and media scrambled to warn citizens – especially those who work on the water or those attending school or living in low-lying areas. Because of the nature of tsunamis (they can travel about 500 miles — 800 km — per hour), and the great distances in the Pacific, some people had to wait nearly three hours anticipating tsunami-like waves.

However, nothing measuring the damage in Samoa or American Samoa was reported. Eastern islands in the Fiji group reported waves over one-foot high just 30 minutes after the earthquake. New Zealand, some 1800 miles from the epicenter, reported waves at 40 cm, or 15 inches.

From footage by a cameraman named Rayner W, who took a walking tour of the damage in Leone, American Samoa.

Erica Wales, a Peace Corps volunteer in Salesatele, Samoa, is lucky to be alive.

From the blog Peace Corps Adventures in Samoa:

I was sleeping when the 8.0 earthquake hit. My house started shaking and things were falling off shelves. Books fell down, the phone mounted on my wall fell down, cans of food fell…I’m smart enough to know when things start falling it is probably wise to get out. So grabbed my phone and left my room. The shaking lasted a long time too, at least a minute. I texted a good friend here with the message of “shit that was big” when it was over. She agreed. About that time I got a call from the Peace Corps medical officer that I should probably move inland because the possibility of a tsunami. So I grabbed an ie and left.

I was walking on the road which parallels the beach when I noticed something wasn’t right. I could see structures like rocks and coral which I have never seen above water, not even at the lowest of low tides. This didn’t bode well. Then I noticed the really odd wave action, something just wasn’t right. I had just turned the corner of the road and was now headed inland, versus parallel to the beach as I had been just one minute before, when the waves hit the beach and surged up the road. At this point I started running, as did my village. As I was running I could hear the water surging up the river, tearing trees down.

I got up to the main road where most everyone was. The matai were directing everyone to head to Siuniu, the village inland. I could see the look of panic and worry as parents asked where their kids were, for they were headed to the primary school which is near me. The matai were organized and knew where to direct the parents to in order to find their kids. I went up to Siuniu and waited with my village. At this point we were getting reports of a school in Poutasi (a few villages to the west) collapsing and killing three kids. Everyone was on phones, calling relatives and friends in neighboring villages, trying to find out what was going on. Reports came that 50 people in Poutasi were dead, buried in the sand. A boy in neighboring Salani died. And 15 in Aleipata were dead. As far as I know at this point, no one in my village died. We are lucky.

Then, she adds, almost in passing:

Then I got a report that my house and another were destroyed. I wanted to go and see if this was true, but I knew to stay. I waited a few hours then went to see what the damage was. Sure enough, my house was flattened. The tsunami ripped the house from its foundation and deposited it 10 feet in front of the house, collapsed beyond repair. I could see all of my stuff waterlogged and muddy. I’m not sure what can be salvaged. I’m going back tomorrow to find out what I can still use, but I know most things will be trashed.

Matt, another Peace Corps volunteer, was posting throughout the day. He takes us through the hurry-up-and-wait reality that often goes along with a natural disaster.

From Matt’s Samoa Blog:

About 8 minutes ago, we just had a big earthquake. Big. No information yet on the exact magnitude, but it was quite long and certainly big enough to knock over stuff around my house. I'm guessing it was at least a 6.0 on account of the stuff flying about. About 40 seconds in, I grabbed my laptop because I was afraid the cinderblock shelf was going to fall on top of it. The quake went on and on and on to the point it felt like it was continuously shaking into the aftershock phase. And we've had a couple aftershocks already.

Most of Apia evacuated to higher ground. Uphill roads became one-way highways for cars and buses, but most of us just walked. Tsunami sirens blared across Apia. Church bells rang. My school rang its bell. The Peace Corps sent out mass text messages, which they followed up with phone calls to make sure everyone was heading inland.

I walked with a couple girls from my 11.3 class and held an impromptu geology lesson.

There was much confusion as to where we were supposed t go and where we could stop. Students asked me where we were going, and I could only tell them we were going “Up.” A couple teachers also asked me. “I was following you,” I said.

Eventually I setup camp with a bunch of year 13s where we had plain sight of the ocean. We hung out in the shade, and my cell phone got passed around.

After about an hour some people started heading back downhill, but most of us stayed in place. I wanted to get clear word from the Peace Corps before I left. And then I did.

News is sketchy. It sounds like the south, and particularly the southeast, parts of Upolu were most affected. It's difficult to know whether the damage was caused by the quake itself or the subsequent rising water levels. I've also heard the number of fatalities is 14, although it was unclear if that was for Samoa or American Samoa.

Then, Matt provides an inventory of damage to his friends’ houses.

I just talked to Asolima and she said Fausaga is okay. They have a marshy inlet that separates the village from the ocean, so it was able to blunt the effects of the rising tide. Nonetheless, many of the families have retreated inland to the more elevated maumaga. As I was on the phone with Asolima, she said the radio was broadcasting new tsunami warnings and they would probably head up the mountain once more. She added they'd probably sleep there.

Much of Fausaga's neighboring village, Tafitoala, sits along the ocean and was badly hit. Much of the Tafitoala Beach Fales have been wiped out as well as a bunch of the other houses along the beach. Neighboring beach resorts, including Sinalei and Coconuts, were also badly hit.

Koa is fine. He lives on the north side of the island and everything in his village is mostly back to normal. Supy evacuated with Dan and Paul and spent the morning drinking niu. He said the water level rose, but his village came through unharmed. Phil lives right on the water, but said the water didn't come onto land. Paul and Dan's village suffered minor damage, and a woman reportedly died from a heart attack.

I've heard Erin's village may have seen a 20-foot wave. That estimate is based on boats lying 200 meters inland. The secondary school in her village collapsed.

Another Peace Corps volunteer returns to her work the day after and learns some bad news. From the blog See Reeves:

I was up at 6 am as usual and saw the neighbors returning home (the entire family had mysteriously packed up and left the house at 10 pm last night). I went over to ask if their family was ok. The neighbor also happens to be the director of the school board, so I asked if school was still on for today. He said yes. So I responded to the numerous emails filling my inbox, took a shower and went to school.

I knew right away that there were not going to be classes. The student population, usually more than 600, had dropped to less than 100 students. Every student and teacher I passed on the walk up the school drive, I asked if their families were ok. Moleli, the P.E. instructor, had lost three members of his extended family. Every one expressed their happiness to see me and their concern for me yesterday. I had hightailed it out of town the minute we got the Peace Corps evacuate message, which was before I had ever made it to school that day. The other teachers had worried about me.

When the evacuation order had come, the school principal and three of the teachers had filled vehicles with students to drive them inland. While they were up the hill a parent of a Year 9 girl student had arrived in a van and picked up nine students to drive inland. On the way up the hill something happened with the van, it lost power and all breaks. The car began to roll down the hill backwards. The driver turned the wheel, thinking he should be facing the way the van was rolling. This sent the van flipping side over side down the hill. All nine students were taken to the hospital and one student, the driver of the van's own daughter, was killed in the accident.

Moleli had transported the students to the hospital himself and sat with them for hours, refusing medical attention for an injury to his head until every student had been seen. He was extremely touched by the concern of visiting medical volunteers, Germaine and Imogen (possibly from Ireland or Scotland). Reaching into his pocket he produced the scrap of paper that contained their cell phone number. He told me he had called them later that night and had spoken with them for nearly two hours.

Talking to the teachers I could sense the raw emotion just under the surface. They were tired and frayed around the edges. Samoa had just experienced the most devastating natural disaster in recent history. Even the cyclones of the early 90's had not claimed as many lives (death toll numbers still vary widely).

“Samoa will remember this day in her heart for ever,” said Moleli.

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