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.

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