Day 9: Field Report
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.