Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Tsunami Update

At 6:48 this morning I was already up. I hadn't written a blog entry the night before and I am trying to blog everyday I wanted to get it done before I got ready for school. I was typing something witty about Northern Exposure when the house started to shake. This was the most dramatic shaking I had every experienced. When it didn't end after several seconds Cale and I left the house to stand in the back lawn. We could hear things rattling on the shelves and the house creaking. It was the first time I experienced both the jarring and undulating earthquake waves at the same time.

Immediately after it was over, Cale hit the internet and discovered a preliminary size of 7.9 only 200km south of Apia. Cale had me start packing the backpacks with our essentials (laptops, hard drives, cameras, you know...the important stuff). Obviously we called our Safety and Security Officer. He told us there was a tsunami warning in effect and we were to head uta (inland). The second Cale got off the phone with him we received the text message our Safety Officer must have just sent informing us of the warning. While Cale finished packing, I ran next door to tell the neighbors the situation and that we were evacuating. They were listening to the radio waiting for the news.

During this time we experienced at least one after shock that we later learned was a second earthquake. There would be six more earthquakes in the Samoa islands before the days end (at least one several hours later). According to the
USGS web site, there were several more listed in Tonga, the Cook Islands and Japan. The Ring of Fire is just hopping today.

What I did next will be a source of ridicule by Cale for years to come, I am sure. I put on deodorant and then I pulled my hair back in a bandana while he waited impatiently to leave the house. If I had been the volunteer on the south side of the island whose home was washed away, we'd both be dead. The turn around from earthquake to water rushing up over the road was less than 15 minutes.

On the road outside our house a passing cab honked and waved. It was Dani, our favorite cab driver. We flagged him down. "Uta," we exclaimed. "Faleula-uta?" he asked. No, we needed more uta than that, the Faleata Sports Complex, please.

Heading uta.

We were in his cab headed up hill when the first warnings went out on the radio urging all people in low-lying areas to head inland immediately. The Peace Corps warning had been quicker than the one for the general public. We were passing school children walking down the hill to school. They were going the wrong way.

On the way uta Cale received a phone call from his mother, she had heard the news (rather quickly). However, before he could say more than, "we are heading up the mountain now," there was a call from the country director on the other line. "Got to go," he said to his mom, hanging up on her and most likely causing her a little distress.

Other evacuees.

Once we got to the sports complex we found an open faleoloa and bought a phone card to call Annette back. There were some people entering the complex and we asked the lady at the store what was going on. She said there was a weight-lifting event. However, we soon learned we weren't the only people that considered the sports complex an excellent evacuation point in case of a tsunami. The people were here because it was higher ground. From our vantage point we could see the road going up the mountain and streams of people heading even more uta. However, we felt that any tsunami that could reach us this high up the hill (that was coming from the other side of the mountain anyway) was not one we were going to escape regardless of how high we walked.

People headed up the mountain.

We experienced another quake and were joined by a Tokelauan rugby player from Australian. I think he was comforted by the palagi faces since he mentioned several times that the people here thought he was Samoan and he wasn't. This kid was only 17 years old here on a one week trip to play in a rugby tournament on Friday. He seemed a little freaked out by the whole situation that Cale and I were brushing off as another false alarm. Tokelau's elevation above sea level is practically nothing, but I cannot locate any information on the internet about any damage there.

Eventually the sun sent Cale and I around the back of the natatorium searching out shade (where we discovered an outdoor pool and a kiddie pool, who knew?). Later employees of the natatorium shooed us away from the edges off the pool where people had gathered in the shade to one of the three Samoan fale nearby.

When the tsunami "warning" was finally over at 11:19 am, Cale had read an entire book (lucky him for thinking to pack one) and I had listened to three This
American Lifes from the mid-90s on my iPod. We started our walk down the mountain, eventually catching a bus into Apia (a Faleula bus even, how weird). We arrived at the Peace Corps office around noon thinking it had all been a false alarm and wondering my our Security Officers last text telling us we could return home also told us to watch out for any debris.

It was only once we were in the office that we learned there might be debris around because a tsunami had hit the south side of the islands. The south east side of Upolu received the most damage with reports indicating that Lalomanu, Aleipata, FaoFao, Poutasi, Iliili, Salani, Sinalei, and Coconuts were all devastated by the waters. It is safe to assume that any low-lying coastal areas near these were also affected.

This is also when we learned that the home of a volunteer living on the south side of the island had been destroyed. Volunteers already in the office who had been in contact with her shared the details gleaned from text messaging. She was awoken by the quake, noticed the tide receding abnormally and had ran to higher ground, literally chased by the sudden incoming tide. Also, her dog was missing. Peace Corps were on their way to pick her up. We also learned that another volunteer on the south side had lost a Year 5 student who was swept out to sea and drowned.

Eventually, the volunteer whose home was lost arrived at the office and shared her tale. The quake had awakened her. She was texting another volunteer about severity of the quake when our Medical Officer called her to tell her about the warning. She now credits the Medical Officer with saving her life. She went outside to assess the situation, grabbing her trash to take to the bin on the way. As she walked down the road to the bin she noticed something was wrong with the ocean. She could see things above the waves that she had never seen before, not even at the lowest tides. This made her uneasy. Next the tide came back in. The water was up over the coastal road and she and the other people in her village were running to higher ground. All she had with her was a small back that contained her camera, passport and some other papers. Once up the hill, she could hear the sound of the water surging up a river close by, ripping down trees in its path. As the water receded, some villagers ventured back. Word returned that her home was gone. She, too, headed back and saw the destruction of her home, which had been completely lifted from its foundation. A family in the village was already clearing out a room for her to live in when the Peace Corps arrive to take her to the office. Someone handed her a picture. It was a photograph of her father as a child. The one thing they had rescued from the wreckage of her home.

All her belongings.

Cale and I stuck around the office for a while awaiting word that volunteers were needed at the hospital. When no word came we biked home (we had left our bikes in the office on Saturday) and I wrote this blog entry.

My friend Clifton who is in disaster prepardness and relief with the Red Cross in American has informed me he is sending teams from three states to Samoa. A RPCV also posted this comment to the blog:

Started a facebook page called the Samoa Tsunami Relief Effort. Please update your blog so I can post it there. Also, NZ Red Cross is taking donations specifically for the Samoa Red Cross. http://www.redcross.org.nz/cms_display.php?st=1&sn=13&pg=6341 Please post on your blog if you can. Thanks for posting-many former pisikoa are paying close attention. Thoughts and prayers with everyone on the islands.

Vic, group 69

I will let you know when I know more.

— Sara


Julya Steyh said...

Again Sara I cannot thank you enough from the RPCVs back home. You have been wonderful in updating us and helping to ease some of our fears. Thank you.

Barb Carusillo said...

Wow...I am so glad that your medical officer called the volunteer when she did....and she could run fast enough to escape the wave. And I am so glad you updated again. Teresa called us about the second Tsunami warning so I was worried till I read your post. Figured you couldn't be blogging and treading water at the same time. Thank goodness for Clifford, and all the other folks rushing to give support. I appreciate the website for Samoa relief...will be sending it to all the folk on my list!

Brian said...

Great information, thanks for blogging it and keeping us informed. Glad you and all the PCVs are safe.

PCV Armenia

Emmor said...

Faafetai tele lava mo le blog.

Any word of how Pata Falelatai fared?

Group 42

Bradford said...

Hell yah, you made the NYTimes! Glad you guys are ok. I was worried until I saw your post. Stay safe and dry.