Thursday, October 1, 2009
74: Tsunami (Disaster Relief)
Wednesday morning we received a text from Joey B, the Red Cross was looking for assistance. We had two recently arrived couch surfers standing in our living room. Lindsey (from Carmel, Indiana) was game to spend the day volunteering and Ales (from the Czech Republic) was confused about what we were saying and later realized what he had agreed to.
Together we all caught a cab into Apia. On the way to the Red Cross we stopped at the Peace Corps to pick up the free box full of clothes to deliver to the Red Cross. Once at the Red Cross office we were assigned to a truck driven by Mena and her husband (whose name I have forgotten). Joey C and Jenny, a woman working for the Ministry of Finance from Australia joined us. Several jugs of water and a box of bread filled out the bed of the truck.
Any car could be a Red Cross car with a little white fabric and red paint.
When we first crested the mountain on the Cross Island Road, I could see the ocean spread out before us as if it was any other day. I searched for some sign of what had happened the day before.
"I don't know why, but some home, I expected the ocean to look more menacing today."
"The ocean doesn't care," Cale replied.
It was along drive along the coastal road after turning left at the T before we saw any signs of destruction. We passed Meghan's old home. It was untouched. I had spoken with her family on the phone earlier in the day and knew they were all safe and dry.
Poutasi was the first sign of damage. There the road came close to the shore and we could see the waterlogged homes and the downed trees. Smoke from small fires dotted the landscape as families began the clean up of their land. With out a good before frame of reference it was hard for us to judge to scale of destruction or the number of missing structures.
Salani. Photo/Ales Pribyl
Crossing the bridge at Salani, we looked out at where a resort had once been. From there we were pretty far from the coast until we reached the village of Lepa.
Cale and I are quite familiar with Lepa, we pass through it every time we visit our favorite Upolu beach, FaoFao. It was practically unrecognizable. The beach on the ocean side of the road had been stripped away. The homes to the north of the road where toppling, flattened and leveled. It was shocking.
Where FaoFao was.
However, this in no way prepared us for what we saw when we reached FaoFao. We could not find FaoFao. Nothing remained of the seaside beach fales that we had come to know and love in our two years in Samoa. Cale was finally able to point out a familiar, uniquely-painted speed hump. This was the cross walk between the beach-side bar/restaurant and the restroom and shower facilities across the street. Not a single building stood. No restaurant, no restrooms. Nothing. The large hall where they held FiaFia nights, gone. All the beach fales we had spent our time in, gone.
Lalomanu. Photo/Ales Pribyl
The destruction only worsened as we continued to head east. Once again, we only knew we were in Lalomanu when we passed the sign for Litia Sina, broken in half and dangling from a pole. Nothing else remained of the most popular tourist beach on Upolu.
We took the Lalomanu road inland to the local hospital and also the local consolidation point for the Red Cross.
The first thing I noticed when we pulled into the grounds was all the people seemed to be wearing the face masks that had become so familiar during the swine flu days. The next thing I saw was the reason why. The Lalomanu Falemai (Hospital) had become a makeshift field morgue and the eight bodies we had heard were found that morning (heard on the radio on the drive over) were laid out on tarps and sleeping mats between the building and the Red Cross tents.
When we first arrived, there were too many volunteers already in the field and they were not sure what to do with us. So there I stood, an outsider, gawking like a tourist, as the residents of Lalomanu tenderly identified and took away their dead loved ones.
I reminded myself again today why I could never be a photojournalist. Repeatedly through out the day I would wish to take pictures but at the same time be unable bring myself to do it. As one body was loaded into a truck, I took out my camera and snapped a shot. I felt dirty and wrong. Cale turned around, "Put that thing away."
Eventually we were told we could be useful to the police and fire department back on the shore. We were loaded into a truck and sent to a scene of complete destruction. An open field between mountain and road had been created by the wave that tore down all the trees and buildings that once stood there. Where once their had been a resort and beach fales there was now mud and mangled roofing irons. We were told to spread out and work our way towards the mountain. I looked around in confusion.
"Are we just walking or are we doing something?"
"We're looking," was the response.
"Looking for what?" I asked.
Lissa, another Peace Corps volunteer turned to me, "Bodies. We're looking for bodies." After a pause she added, "Or signs of life."
And so we slipped and scrabbled through the mud. We lifted up roofing irons and heaved planks. We poked under mangled trees and overturned mattresses. We collected all the family photographs we found. Lissa hauled out a relatively undamaged fine mat. We didn't find any dead, but we didn't find any life either.
Lalomanu. Photo/Ales Pribyl
As it approached 3pm, we all began to wander to the same area. There was an overwhelming shared sense of end. Then voices called out. They were bringing in the bulldozers and we needed to clear the way.
That was enough. We all piled into cars and headed home. Home to a shower and a meal and a time to collect our thoughts on what we had seen on the south side of Samoa today.
More Pictures on the Flickr here.
Posted by Cale