Thursday, October 1, 2009

Tsunami Update

First, an explanation for last nights mystery repeat tsunami warning. When the first quake happened at 6:48 am, the local cell phone company, Digicel, sent out a text message about the tsunami warning to all its users. This message got caught in the overloaded system and was not delivered to some users until late that evening. When those users received the message, they thought it was new and set of the tsunami alarm in Apia again.

Now, on to school.

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.

— Sara

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