Sunday, March 28, 2010

They came to help. What was it like?

Many people came to help after the tsunami. Vaughan Simpson from Cabella Construction was one of those who came on Wednesday and every day afterward until the searching was called off. Relying on only fragmented reports of the damage at Aleipata, he had mobilized his team on tsunami afternoon and they were on the road before daybreak that Wednesday morning. Thirty men loaded on four heavy duty trucks with ropes, bushknives, generators and other supplies. “We wanted to see what we could do to help. We didn’t really know the full scale of the disaster, we thought we would just drive until we saw someone who seriously needed our help. We were looking for the end of the line basically and we found it with Tony at Lalomanu. We arrived at half past eight and the fire brigade had just got there. We looked at Lalomanu and we just knew – this was the place to stop.”

It was a devastation that film cannot truly capture. You had to be there. Not on the road driving past, but really there. “From the road you couldn’t really see the thick of it. The houses had been pushed through the trees, leaving a shield of debris, like a shelter or blanket along the tree line. The natural lay of the land also meant the ground fell away from behind the trees…we called this area, Ground Zero. It was so thick. There was roofing iron, toilet outhouses, wire fences, furniture, fabric, dead animals, locals and tourists belongings, vehicles, kids toys – all pushed through the trees back and forth with each wave like clothes in a washing machine. Most of what was left in piles wasn’t much bigger than a meter long and so densely compacted that in some areas it would take three men, several hours to clear even one square meter.”

And of course, no media reports could capture the smell. “Anyone that’s been to Samoa will understand the heat. You can nearly chew the air as you come out of an airplane, and when you add water like rain or in this case, the saturated ground due to the waves – as the water evaporated up from the ground it was intense. In that heat, things go off really fast. Pigs, fish that had washed in with the waves and all the food that was in the many fridges and freezers, many which were full…frankly, the smell of some of these things made you want to vomit. But you kept searching. Some of the guys wanted to burn the bigger animals to stop the decay but we wouldn’t let them because the smoke would sit in the search area and hamper our efforts. Then, as the days went by, smell was the best way to locate the problem areas that needed searching. ”

The searching began with a prayer before the group spanned out. “We would walk in line to a grid pattern , left to right, back and forth, power pole to power pole, coconut tree to coconut tree. We would paint marks on trees to give us reference points or stand temporary markers so we could know exactly what areas had already been searched and continuously radio in where we were and which areas needed to be marked off.”

It was never as simple as just ‘walking in a line looking for a body’ though. Not with so much debris to get through. “Apart from the search line we also had five or six gangs with about six people in each that would work with chainsaws, bush knives and a small one ton excavator. These gangs were used to pull apart the very dense concentrated areas that were as big as half an acre. It would take them all day to get through.”

The searching was tinged slightly with apprehension. Major earthquakes are always followed in resultant days and weeks by aftershocks, some of them quite substantial ones. For a people already staggering from the previous day’s disaster, the earth shaking was a cause for alarm. For those on the tsunami sites as well as for those loved ones worrying and waiting for you at home. Throughout the day there were several aftershocks. Immediately cellphones would go off all down the search line, twenty or thirty of them, shrill and piercing as wives and family would hit speed dial. Where are you? Are you anywhere near the water? Did you feel that? Are you alright? You need to get to a safe place…Be careful… Heads would whip back for an assessment of the ocean, is that a wave? Is it pulling back? Were those rocks showing before? Then everyone would turn to look at the hill, gauging the distance that would need covering, scrutinizing for the best ways/paths up. Then huge breaths would be taken to steady tensely strung nerves. And the work would continue.

Life is Beautiful

For Terisa, the tsunami of 29/09 was many things. It was a merciless thief. It took their businesses – “all of a sudden, everything’s gone, taken. Your sweat, what you worked all these years for. Nine years of hard work taken away.”

It robbed her of her peace. “I’ve always felt that the ocean was a calm, peaceful thing…it used to be a place where we could go sit and relax and to soothe your mind. Maybe in time, it will be a soothing place for me again, but now, if I go to the beach, all I can think about is that the tsunami’s coming back.”

It took her mother, robbing the So’otoa family of many more years with a woman who was their strength. Terisa's daughter Tiare and her cousins will not have a grandmother’s gentle wisdom to turn to as they become young adults and one day begin families of their own.

The tsunami was also a harsh teacher. “It made me stronger and more humble. It made me realize that God created us and God can take you anytime He wants. We’re only here temporarily, but life is beautiful and we just have to live it to the fullest every day. This tsunami has changed my life completely. Before, I would only go to church when I have time…I was like the black sheep of the family! But this disaster had made me stronger in my faith. I believe there must be a reason why I was supposed to live. When I think back to what happened to me – there’s no way that I should have survived. I should have died in that house. I am very fortunate. I don’t know how I survived but it was for a reason. And that’s what I’m trying to discover right now. What is my calling? To take better care of my family, my village and my people? In the past months now, I have gotten involved in different church and community groups…now I do things out of my true life, out of my heart. Not because I want anybody to like me, but because I truly believe that I could die and yet I haven’t done any good deeds for anybody else. This has strengthened my faith and also my relationship with my husband and daughter.”

Face your fears - it will make you Stronger.

Some people seem to have more than their fair share of challenges. They are survivors. They weather life’s storms and in the face of adversity, they bend and then come back stronger. Rose Talalotu is a survivor. Even before a tsunami threw a hardware store on top of her as she ran across a crowded street beside the Pago harbor. Yes, even before that, Rose was a survivor. “I’ve been through a lot of perfect storms. I’ve been through two bad marriages. My first marriage I was stabbed and then after the divorce I was in a head-on-collision, a mean car accident. My second husband pulled a gun on me…my kids say I’ve got nine lives and I guess I’ve used up a couple of them already. Hopefully I have a few more left!”

Rose was born and raised in Honolulu but she came to American Samoa fifteen years ago to help care for her parents. After they passed away, she stayed on. Rose works at the Bay Hardware Tool Shop and was at their Pago branch on the morning of 29/09. The store is on the ocean side of the main road. Stand at the counter and you can look out over the grimy harbor, the docks piled high with shipping containers. When the quake ended, Rose looked out to the harbor “because I know if there’s a big earthquake, then there could be a tsunami. I looked out the window and the tide was still high so I thought, oh the water’s still high so that’s alright.”

Rose made herself a coffee and sat to work on her computer. She had her back to the sea and so did not see the drastic changes taking place behind her. Until Ma’a, her co-worker called out to her, “Hey Rose, come take a look at the harbor!” Two steps and one glance was all she needed to get her moving.

“I walked to the window and looked out. The harbor was empty, all the yachts looked like little toys on the bottom of the ocean. You could see the bottom of the harbor, the dirt and rubbish all scattered there.”

Rose yelled at Ma’a to grab the cashbox and run. Instead of taking off straight out the door, she herself went back around the counter to get her purse. She still wonders if maybe those few seconds would have made the difference to what happened next. Rose ran out the door and tried to cross the busy street. It was school hour and buses battled with cars coming in to town to work. Drivers had no eyes to see the water that was fast approaching them. The surge hit the buildings on the harbor line first, many of them crumbling. Then the tsunami swept into the traffic, pushing buses and trucks into a mad jumble of automotive fury. Rose had just made it to the far sidewalk when she saw it…” out of the corner of my eye I could see the water coming and not long after that, all the buildings and the tool shop, they were right behind me. That’s when I got caught in the tsunami. I was just rolling and rolling, for a long time I was under water.”

As she tumbled in the water, Rose was being bashed by wood and metal debris. “I could feel everything hitting my head. The water was deep because I couldn’t feel the bottom and I couldn’t see anything because the water was so dirty and filthy, filthy, filthy…” Rose was taken to the far end of the street. A virtual dam of debris that used to be the hardware store, landed on top of her. She came up gasping for air only to find herself trapped underneath a sloping roof. There was a narrow pocket of space between her head and the black water. She hung on and hoped desperately the water level would not rise any further. In those next few minutes, Rose heard something she will remember for the rest of her life. Someone, trapped in the water beneath her, scrabbling and scraping wildly against the wreckage for escape.

“I could feel that there was somebody under there. I didn’t know what to do, the water was so dirty I couldn’t see anything…I could feel them creeping and making this scratching noise and then I heard a last breath being released, like a gurgle. I was so scared…I thought oh my God…”

Rose knew when the wave changed its mind and began its retreat to the ocean. It tugged and pulled at her as she struggled against its command to go with it. “When the water started going back to the harbor I could feel my hair going back, getting pulled and I was afraid because I didn’t know whether all the debris was going to shift and the whole thing would just come down and smash me..”

As quickly as it had come, the water left. Rose fought her way out of the wreckage, crawling towards the sunlight. “I kind of pulled away the lumber and wires and fixtures and electrical wire I was tangled in. I stuck my hand out of the mess and yelled for help. A kid came, Michael, he heard me and he called these other three guys to move all the stuff and pull me out. First they were carrying me up the hill but I wanted to try and walk so I could see if I had any broken bones.I stood up and looked back and there was no store left. I started crying because I just thanked God for my blessings because if I had been in the store I don’t think I would have made it. That’s when I started feeling the pain…”

Rose had full body bruises, numerous cuts that needed stitching, a severe head injury, broken fingers. Her face swelled up so badly that she was unrecognizable. “I didn’t want anyone to touch me because I was in so much pain. And I really wanted to wash because I was so filthy. For days afterwards, I could still smell that stink water on me.”

Two days after the tsunami, friends found Rose’s handbag that she had grabbed from underneath the counter. The eight dollars cash was gone, but her passport and money cards were still there. She was able to fly out to Hawaii that weekend to get medical care closer to her children and grandchildren. She laughs as she recalls the look on the Immigration officer’s face when she handed him her tsunami-trashed passport. “Oh that thing stank so bad! Everyone could smell my passport…I hated to even put it in my bag it was so awful…”

Rose couldn’t sleep beside the sea in those first days after the tsunami “I was staying at my cousin’s place and she lives right beside the ocean and I had to go stay at my house inland because I could hear the waves outside and I was so scared just hearing the water.” But now, she has taken steps to overcome that apprehension. She is back at work at the newly rebuilt Tool Shop, looking out over the placid harbor. And she is deliberately staying with a friend who lives beside the ocean. “I have to get over my fear. I remind myself that you need an earthquake before a tsunami comes so we have to just watch out for the signs. I like to go fishing and swimming. So I’m working on it. I look out every day at the ocean to make myself get used to it again.”

Rose Talalotu is a survivor. What keeps her going? “My kids and grandkids. Nobody wants to lose a parent…I want to see my children and grandchildren grow up. Its mostly for them that I survived, strong mind, strong will…the best way to overcome your fears and your struggles? Just face them. It will make you stronger.”

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Little Things.

The Samoan word for gift is ‘meaalofa’. Things of love. Things from love. Ask any survivor of the Samoa tsunami about the help they received after their ordeal and they will tell you – there has been so much love that they have been overwhelmed. Everywhere, people reached out to give what and where they could. In the wave of goodwill that flowed through the disaster zone, there are those ‘little things’ that people remember.

A handful of nails. That someone left on a brick. Where a white flag was raised in amidst the broken remains of a home in Saleapaga. On the flag an appeal was inscribed, Need Help: Need H2O tank, food, hammer, nails, axe…Thank you! Someone passing by responded and quietly gave a handful of nails.

A hot meal. Australian volunteer paramedic Steve Williams was caring for the injured at the National Hospital on that endless Tuesday. He got a call from another pair of volunteers, Have you eaten today? Later that afternoon they came to the hospital. With a homemade meal big enough to feed a Samoan-sized family. Steve remembers, “I’ll never forget that you know? They wanted to do something to help and it was just so thoughtful…”

A ride to the hospital. One woman remembers the total stranger on the ferry ride from Savaii to Upolu island. Who noticed her distress upon hearing of the tsunami. Her tears of worry for her family in Aleipata who had been taken to the hospital. When the boat docked at Mulifanua, the man offered to take her to the hospital. A forty minute drive. Once there, he then accompanied her inside and was there to catch her when she finally collapsed with the stress of her morning. Francis Craig shrugs, “She was so upset, what else could I do? She needed some help.”

Lip balm. Wendy Pearce from Christchurch, NZ lost everything in the waves. “The only thing I had left was the lavalava I was wearing.” A woman offered to take them to the NZ High Commission. “When I asked her to stop at a shop so we could buy Vaseline for my sunburnt lips, she kindly went in and bought us shampoo, deodorant, moisturizer and a bottle of wine as well – that made us start crying again.”

A gas bottle. A veteran Red cross volunteer was moved to tears when she tried to buy two gas stoves for families hit by the tsunami. “The company wouldn’t take any money from the Red Cross. Even better, it donated ten stoves and bottles…[me] and the gas man cried together.”

A coconut. The Cedermans from Raglan, NZ fled Lalomanu beach and sought refuge in the mountain hills with many others. “No sooner had we run for our lives – then a Samoan man climbed a tree and chopped off about twenty coconuts with a machete so everybody could have a drink…and soon after someone from a nearby village on higher ground produced lots of little dumpling-like eats and suddenly it was almost like a church picnic.”

A beloved Spiderman toy. A young tsunami survivor was taken from his hospital room for an xray. When he returned it was to find that strangers had visited during his absence. A family. A six year old boy with a cheeky glint in his eyes. Who came with cookies and candy. And his favourite toy. To give to the boy “who is hurt and sad from the tsunami…maybe he can play with it and feel better.”

A lavalava. Given to a young survivor from New Zealand. Who lay in agony from her injuries after the tsunami, uncaring that all her clothing had been ripped away in the waves. “This guy came and took care of her leg first – it was pretty bad. She ended up later needing several operations. He got her leg free and then he took off his own lavalava and covered her. She said she hadn’t even realized that she was naked until that moment, and she was emotional remembering his thoughtfulness.”

A roll of toilet paper. When people go to stay at the National Hospital they take many of their own supplies. A pillow. A fan. And toilet paper. Stunned tsunami survivors, some of them brought in naked with cuts covering their entire body, were then faced with a lack of the essentials. A woman came to the tsunami ward on Wednesday morning bearing hastily assembled hygiene kits. Frangipani soap and lotion, washcloths, toothbrushes – and toilet paper.

A hot shower. A young couple escaped from Coconut’s Resort at Siumu with little more than their lives. That night, friends Rob and Katie Wetzell invited them to stay with them. “That night we had a hot shower. I washed the sand out of J's cuts and bathed him in hydrogen peroxide. Everywhere I looked he had a scratch, scrape or abrasion. We petted cats and dogs then laid down to dream of tsunamis and the events of the day.”

Poppy Wilson's Story

Poppy and Max Wilson outside Lalomanu Hospital.

Time - 7am
Day - 29th September
In my sleep I felt a strange rumbling and I thought it was a massaging machine but as I woke my Dad was yelling “Get out of the Fale” He grabbed me by my foot and dragged me outside.I realised we were in a big low rumbling earthquake that went on and on. When it stopped I went back into the Fale and got dressed. At that point dad joined me and talked to me about staying close as he suspected that something else could come after the earthquake.
I said “Dad I need to go to the toilet”.
Dad replied “Yes but if you here me calling come no matter what”.
I went to the toilet block and locked the door behind me.Then I heard screams and my Dad yelling
I bolted out of the toilet I was very frightened because the tone of my Dad’s voice
was very desperate and I could also hear other people screaming and yelling…
I saw Dad by the Fale and ran to him.I dropped the Fale keys in the hidey-hole.
He pointed to the cliff behind the toilet block that I was just in. Dad was right behind me yelling“GO, GO, GO”Every time he said GO I ran even faster.Maxwell was already well ahead of us.We ran over a rubbish pile.I dropped my beautiful fan that I had just bought the day before for 5 Tala.We started to climb the cliff using the roots and branches of the trees.

Maxwell was climbing in front of me, my dad was behind us both yelling
“GO GO, don’t look back”
We got about 15 meters up. I couldn’t reach the next tree root
“Dad I can’t go any further” I screamed.Dad yelled to Maxwell to grab my hand.
Dad pushed my feet from underneath.Maxwell cried“If I’m going to die, at least I’m going to die with you guys”.
Dad replied“Don’t be so stupid just GO”
Then the first wave hit the cliff.A yellow car was tossed up against the cliff. At that point I became very frightened .I climbed the cliff so fast that I can’t remember climbing it.At the top of the hill we were all alone.I was so frighten I was balling my eyes out.Then I saw movement in the bushes and I said
“Hey other people”but a stupid pig appeared instead.2 other Children turned up.
They were really frightened and crying for Their Mother and fathers.
Then 2 Samoan boys came running towards us.One of them was yelling for his Mum.
Dad stopped them from going down the cliff and told them to stay with us.
Dad turned his attention me and the other little girl to calm us down.
While dad wasn’t watching one of the Samoan boys went down the cliff.
We never saw him again.Eventually the other children’s parents appeared
over the rim of cliff.Dad told me to hold onto another little girl who was also crying and very frightened as he went to look for our friends Jenny and Sophie.
Dad reappeared with Jenny and Sophie Jenny had a sore foot.
After a while there was lots of people with us. Most of them wanted to go back down,
but dad said
“Don’t, We don’t know what’s coming next
Then as a group we started to walk away from the cliff,through the bush. Going inland We came across a Samoan man who told us to go to the hospital which wasn’t far from where we were.We arrived at the hospital and we cleaned all our scrapes and burses with wet cloths.
I saw a woman crying over her dead baby.The hospital got really busy and frightening so we walked further up the hill on a sharp gravel road in bear feet.
We found a house that was half built.Other people had already started to gather there.
We sat down and dad found some water to drink. After I drank the water I vomited.
Strangely I felt much better after that.We cleared an area for us to lie down
as we believed that we would be staying the night.Then some Samoans turned up with woven matts and pillows to make us more comfortable.In the house with us were a lot of badly wounded people and 2 families that had lost children.
Then a van came with cooking rings and food.They set up a cooking area and prepared us food to eat.After a while the wounded were taken down to the hospital.
Then cars turned up and before we knew it we were on the back of a ute and driving down the road.We drove past the hospital and it was over crowded with lots of injured people.Then we drove past what was our resort, which was totally destroyed.
I saw a leg and a head poking out of the sand on the beach.It took us 1 hour, 50 minutes to drive thought the destruction zone to Apia.
We arrived in Apia on sunset and went to a motel to stay the night.At 4:30 the next morning the church bell rang.We all leapt out of bed and ran out side,
Up the stairs to the top story of the motel thinking it was a warning for another Tsunami.But they were just calling people to early church.
The next day dad got us on the late flight back to New Zealand.We left Samoa with just our shorts and tee shirts.We had lost everything else
to the Tsunami.The Samoan’s of Litia Sini at Lalomanu lost everything
including family and friendsBut they still made us their first priority.
They are truly kind and loving people.We are collecting money to help them rebuild their lives, so please give generously.

Poppy Wilson
Age 10
Speech date - Friday 16th October 2009
Coatesville School

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

My son who was lost - and then was found.

You know that feeling you get when you’ve forgotten something but you don’t quite know what it is? You’ve left the house, you’re on your way to work – and you have that niggling feeling that you’re not quite complete?

Rita Romeo, 36 - of Lalomanu had that feeling on September 29th. As she chased her children up the steep embankment at the back of their beach fale operation. As she tried to tell her guests to follow them to the mountain. As she went back to scream at tourists who were holding tightly to the posts of her dining fale, telling them – “Don’t be stupid, those posts won’t save you! You have to run up the mountain. Run!”

As she watched the girl who owns the ice cream shop on the beach, turn back and run to her house as if she had forgotten something, ignoring Rita’s shouts.“Come back! Cant you see the wave is here? Come back. We have to run.”

As she saw the girls house collapse in the wave with a loud banging sound.

As she scrambled up through rocks and bushes. Pulling on roots and branches to get up the steep mountainside. Turning to grab an older palagi woman by the arms, scraping her bare legs raw as she dragged her up and over rocks.

Even as she gasped for breath at the top of the hillside, watching the ocean consume their village, their home, the twenty open beach fales they rented out to visitors for a day, a night, a weekend. Yes, even then, Rita had that terrible feeling that she had forgotten something. Or someone.

Rita has eight children. The youngest still toddles over to nurse. At the close of day, as sunset burned the evening sky, Rita would usually take a few moments to sit in the main fale with her child at her breast – a few moments of contentment as she surveyed the tourist operation that she and her husband had worked so many years to build/develop. They were extending their business – a restaurant and a roadside store. A White Sunday opening was planned.

But on that desperate Tuesday, as she stood with her family and guests on the mountainside, Rita realized with horror what she had forgotten. Her six year old son Livi. Asleep in the bedroom when the wave came.

Who can know what she endured as she waited for the water to recede? “After the wave finished I felt sadness. As I looked out over the villages there were no houses. All I said was ‘oh Lord what have we done to deserve this?’ I felt so much grief when I heard people crying, wanting to live. I thought Livi was dead too. I couldn’t do anything.”

It didn’t seem possible that anyone could survive the ocean beast. But Livi did. An hour after the tsunami, he was found underneath a pile of rubble. “He was found by a woman named Salome. She said she saw him crouched down under all the wood and roofing. He must have been trying to get up for breath but he couldn’t because of the debris. Many people were under all that rubbish. Salome saw a body down there close to where she was standing and then she reached down to bring it out and he came up and it was my child and he was alive.”

Livi’s chest was cut and badly bruised. He had ingested a lot of seawater and would need some serious antibiotics for the infection. But two weeks later, he would be his usual mischievous self. Pestering the team of Australian army volunteers who came to clean their beach with amazing machines that could drive into the ocean, growling over coral on the sea floor.

Rita would watch him run over golden sand beside crystal water and shake her head in quiet awe. “We are thankful to the Lord for sparing us and our eight children. Especially my son Livi who was lost and then was found.”