Thursday, July 29, 2010

"They were relentless." After. Thoughts. Vaughan Simpson.

Photo courtesy of Pele Wendt.
There are those, who at the first hint of tragedy, will rush with cameras and recorders – to get the story. It’s their job to take the photos. Of headless houses. Crumpled trucks. Dead people floating in a sobered ocean. The photos that will move us. Inspire us. Horrify us. It’s their job to get the story. They film the mother weeping as she clutches a baby covered in bruises. They ask her what happened? They zero in on a man who grips the fence posts for support as he tries to process seeing his wife crushed underneath an angry barrage of debris. They ask him what happened? Tell us, tell the world… They watch the man who finds the body of his mother in a cluster of fallen trees, watch as he weeps, hugs her, takes off his lavalava and covers her from the sun, shooing away the flies. They watch and through their lens – we watch. Curious, concerned and captivated. On 29/09, the world wanted to know what was happening on this cluster of islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. And local media were rushing to respond. TVOne and TV3 Samoa both had teams out in the disaster zone on the first day. International media were mobilizing and Australia had the first overseas news team arrive in Apia on the eve of 29/09, quickly followed by many from other countries.

Some of the media proved to be a challenge for the search and rescue teams It is difficult to report on tragedy when it is so raw. One treads a fine line between compassionate concern and invasive scrutiny. To reconcile the ‘public’s need to know’ with an individual’s need for sensitivity and privacy. There are those who felt that line was crossed. Vaughan Simpson had his limits tested as journalists flocked to Lalomanu, eager for stories, for pictures of the body recovery. “Some of the media were a litte frustrating. Every time we found a body, we would radio them in to Tony. The media would come charging into the bush and they’re trying to take photos or they’re trying to film the dead people and I would tell them to f… off! I would chase them out. The dead, they’re people, like your brother or your sister, they could be your kids and these pricks want to come in and film it. People aren’t supposed to do that. Some of the film crews were shocking, they were relentless. I chased them all out one day cursing at them and they reluctantly left. They probably went to the next village. I know they have to report on the world news, I suppose, but when you’re out there, working with the dead – it’s not nice. The media have got a job to do I guess – they’ve got to make money somehow, don’t they? I found it disrespectful, but I suppose it records history.”

Monday, July 26, 2010

The wave took her.

Ian and his daughter.
Sesa To'omalatai had been at the big house with her son Ian when the wave came. He was making breakfast for his parents and did not see the wave until it was too late. “I could see people panicking and running but I didn’t know why. I saw people pointing out to the sea, they were saying that a wave is coming. But I wasn’t paying attention and then it was like the wave was boiling over and I got such a fright. It wasn’t even thirty seconds and the wave hit us where we were standing at the back of the house by the kitchen. My wife was carrying our daughter and I caught hold of my mother. The wave hit and destroyed everything. We all went together out to the sea, I grabbed a tree branch and hung on to it with my mother while my wife and daughter were taken far away. We were floating in the sea and I was trying to pull us in because I could see we were drifting further and further out, so I tried to pull us more towards the land. Another wave came and that’s when my mother slipped from my grip, the wave took her. I ended up stuck on the seawall but my mother had gone. My wife and daughter made it to the roadside near the church. People from the village came to help. We looked for my mother and we found her at the back of our house. I wasn’t badly injured, but my mother was dead.”

Sesa was the only person killed at Vailoa village. She was seventy years old and the mother of ten children. Ian’s little girl is named after her grandmother. He holds her gently with huge hands and cries in the afternoon sun as carpenters hammer and saw, rebuilding the petrol station

I felt like an intruder.

Gradually throughout those few days after 29/09, others came to volunteer. To walk the line. To dig, forage and hack their way through Lalomanu. Matthew Leal came as a Red Cross volunteer. “We were assigned to go to Lalomanu and help with ‘clean up efforts’. We later found this was a euphemism for picking through rubble searching for the deceased.” He quickly realized this was not work for the faint of heart –or of body. “Searching for the dead is difficult in many different ways. Most rubble is heavy and haphazard and jagged. Sifting through, lifting and dropping and finding footholds is strenuous and Samoan humidity doesn’t help. The scene is surreal. Dead fish, left behind by the ocean litter the affected area. And then there’s the emotional leap required to look for dead bodies.”

Matthew had been one of a relay team that had run through Aleipata only a few weeks earlier on a 103 km race from Siumu to Apia. The difference between then and now, was mind-numbing. And digging through the personal leftovers of people’s lives, felt intrusive. Almost criminal.

“More than anything, I felt like an intruder. I’d driven by the area we searched many times before the earthquake, but never did I stop to search a family’s possessions or prod through their kitchen. And yet there I was today, finding family photos and Quiksilver baseball caps,condoms and notebooks and novels and gin. Two days ago, it would have been completely unacceptable for me to trudge into these people’s lives. It’s as though with the loss brought on by the tsunami comes the loss of one’s dignity. I felt like I was snooping.”

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Two sets of people.Like night and day.

Ray and Etta Wyberski, Owners of 'Treasure Island' Jewellery store, American Samoa.

“We didn’t even think about the house and the damage or anything. We just thought about our son – everybody here was safe but we had one more that we needed to find…” Ray and Eta went into town. The Plaza building was standing but the lower levels had been blasted through by the wave. It was difficult to make sense of the wreckage though, because of the hordes of people who were scrambling through the ruined stores. Looters. Grabbing anything and everything they could get their hands on. Mainly passersby from other areas unaffected by the waves. Spectators who did not have to worry about searching for missing family members. “It’s amazing how you have two sets of people. One care about life and the other have no thought about anybody else, all they were thinking about was what they could steal. That was it, it was like night and day, two sets of people.”

One couple had come to check their offices at the Plaza and watched the thievery with horror. “One of the hardest parts of the day was the looting. Watching people at their worst was not something I will soon forget. People were looting stores, vehicles, offices, really anything they could get their hands on. Cars that were overturned were soon missing their tires as thieves came by. Some people were literally scavenging before a woman’s body was even removed from a car…”

Into this madness, came Eta and Ray looking for their son. Recognizing them, several people came up to them, “Do you know they’re looting your store? They’re stealing all your stuff.” Eta just waved them away, shoving through the crowd, screaming for her son, Anthony! Has anybody seen my son?!

...Anthony had made it safely out of reach of the water. But when the first wave had barely pulled back, he was one of the rare few who ventured outside to try and help those crying out for aid. Beside the Plaza there is a deep ditch where a murky stream runs. Many vehicles were lodged there. Including a bus. Anthony clambered into that ditch to help bring people out. The bus driver was pinned against the seat and could not be freed. The driver told him to go, go. The next wave was coming. “He didn’t want to leave him. But that wave came again and he was still in the water trying to pull the man out, the water came higher and the man told him to go, get out of here, go. So he got out of the bus and when the wave left, he went back there and the driver was dead.”

When Ray and Eta finally see their son, he is at sweaty, muddy work, dragging a body out of a car in the stream. “He was climbing out of the stream after getting some people out and as he was climbing out, he looked at us and he started crying. I hugged him, I was crying too, I told him, you’re okay, you’re alive, you’re okay.”

Anthony’s first words to his dad were asking for forgiveness. “Dad, I’m sorry about my truck, it’s all messed up…and the store, I’m sorry I couldn’t do anything about the store, I couldn’t stop those people from taking stuff.”

Ray and Eta held their son close, filthy and wet from the foul waters of the Pago harbor. They looked at the remains of their beautiful jewelry store, at people darting ecstatically down the main road with pockets crammed full of Wyberski gold and silver. Ray shook his head, “To hell with it son, we can always rebuild, we can get another car, another store. You’re alive and that’s all that matters. Let’s go home, never mind, just leave it alone.”

Monday, July 19, 2010

After. Thoughts. Chris and Wendy Booth, Survivors.

“We’ve always had one saying Fortune favors the brave. Never before in our lifetimes has this phrase been more important to both of us. We are proud to be a part of a community that has shown such resilience in the face of adversity. In the months since the tsunami, the generousity of our tourism industry partners and suppliers has been amazing! Now, almost a year on, time has flown, the repair and restoration work is going well and our spirit and determination has never been stronger. Each day we start with reminding ourselves how unique Seabreeze was and with that reaffirmation, we now look forward to our re-opening.”
Chris and Wendy are owners of Seabreeze Resort, Aufaga that was destroyed on 29/09 and is currently being rebuilt.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Death is like a knife going through your heart.

Lesa Foti Tuvale is seventy-five years old. He is not a man who lives a sedentary life or who overindulges on heavy fare. Two weeks after the tsunami, Lesa sits under a canvas awning with a bush knife beside him. His hands are worn with black earth. He is the father of six children – one boy and five girls. Lesa’a daughter Leueta was killed in the tsunami. Often when a child dies, we are plagued with questions. Were we good parents? What could I have done differently? Our grief is serrated with guilt and self-doubt. Lesa is no different. On the morning of the tsunami, Lesa had angrily punished his daughter Leueta before she went to work at Taufua Beach Resort.

“This is the only daughter of mine that is naughty. I’m always looking for a stick to smack her with because she was very difficult and wouldn’t listen to her mother. This is the duty of the parent to discipline the children…but it’s so hard. I don’t know. I just pray to God and hope that I was doing the right thing. Who knows if I’m wrong or if my children are wrong – only God can judge.
It was dark when I got word that she had died. And her body had been found. I felt my heart breaking and tears sprang to my eyes. I left everything at that time and just went and sat at the hospital where they were bringing people. I just wanted to see her body. They brought in a group of bodies and I saw my daughter amongst them and I just went and wept on her. Its hard to explain. Its right about the saying that death is like a knife going through your heart, you don’t know how to move on.”

Monday, July 12, 2010

Who can heal the broken hearts and spirits?

Junior Laki with his mum at Saleaumua. She is blind and when the tsunami came, he pushed her to safety in a wheelbarrow.

"In the villages,despite the circumstances, families welcomed us into their tents or makeshift fales, offered us water and food and still managed to give us a warm, dignified smile. It was a humbling experience...We met a puppy called Sunami, talked to children, mothers, fathers, a blind woman, a disabled person, a fisherman, a planter, a teacher, carpenter, a shop-keeper, taxi driver, a beach fale operator, ministers and their wives, chiefs, ninety year old great-grandmothers, a pre-school teacher and many more. Each had their own remarkable story to tell – stories of survival and loss, of incredible acts of kindness, of bravery. Some emotionally, physically exhausted, dazed and lost, some philosophical and strong, grateful to be alive and a gentle acceptance that it is God’s will and that life must go on.”
Malia Manuleleua, Volunteer counsellor, Psycho-social Response team, Samoa.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

After. Thoughts. Rob Bebrouth. Survivor, Australia.

The Aust team prep to fly out Rob Bebrouth.

My sincere hope is that the Samoans have learnt from this terrible tragedy and have put in place a Response Plan in the event of a repeat Tsunami because it is not “if” but “when”. This is especially important in the tourist areas and every Fale location should have a Response Plan in place and it must be communicated to all who come to stay.

After. Thoughts. Francis Keil - Survivor, American Samoa

“It’s hard to explain how I felt when our home was destroyed. You want to get mad, but who are you going to get mad at? You work so hard, for so long to build something then it’s all taken away in five minutes. You feel like you’ve lost everything, lost hope, that’s how I felt. It was good that nobody in my family got hurt, that would have been worse. But it’s just like watching everything collapse in front of you.”

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Conor's Tsunami Poem ( Age 8)

Conor and his family at Lepa school where they spent the night after the tsunami.

T errifying
S amoa
U ltimate
N ature
A ttacking
M onster
I nsane.

(Conor and his family were holidaying at Faofao Beach Fales, Saleapaga on 29/09)

Sunday, July 4, 2010

After. Thoughts. Becky Glew, Survivor.

UK survivors, Helen Wright and Becky Glew, photo courtesy of ITN News.

"My boyfriend and I are expecting our first child on the 30th of July, 2010. Having a baby is something we had always talked about but I would put it off as ‘the time wasn’t right’. However, the tsunami made me realize that life is for living and there is not a minute to spare. The pregnancy has also made me look to the future instead of dwelling on the horrors of that day and it has truly helped me to move on. I still have fears and nightmares but my recovery from the trauma has been much swifter – it will truly be a magical baby when it’s born.”
Becky Glew, UK. Holidaying at Lalomanu on 29/09.

After. Thoughts. Sally Adye, Survivor

"We will never ever forget the Samoan people that day and how they had lost so much. And yet they made sure we were alright. They gave us shelter, food and drink. They organized everyone and got us safely to Apia. We heard that it was after we all left that they started their own grieving. We will always be hugely thankful for all they did for us at such a traumatic and sad time. These wonderful people had not only lost loved ones and friends but they had also lost their homes and their livelihood.”
Sally Adye, New Zealand. Holidaying at Lalomanu on 29/09.

After. Thoughts. Fitiao Taitasi, American Samoa.

“I want everyone out there to know how grateful we are for their love and support. There were so many people – even strangers – sending us messages of comfort on the internet and praying for us. I miss my daughter Vaijoresa so much, we have fixed up our house and everything, but it still doesn’t feel right because she’s not here to share it with us. It helps me to know that so many people out there are caring and hurting for us. There is no way I can thank all these people. They’ve been so supportive to me and my family. Please tell them in your book – thank you.”
Taitasi Fitiao, American Samoa.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

An Initial Book Review

The Tsunami Book recounts a few moments of terror that few in this life ever experience. Lani's ability to distill the actual experiences of individuals, families and villages is remarkable. Personally, my mental state can only absorb a few of them at a sitting. It has taken me much longer to read the book than I originally thought it would. I soon found that the reality of the disaster soon became very personal. Lani's descriptions created mental images of persons and places I know in a very general sense. But they soon became even more familiar as she takes us through the devastation, the anxiety and apprehension and the multiple routes of escape - and even through the agony of the tragic losses suffered.

I find little to critique in the vivid details of an experience of a lifetime. The value of the book is that it reconstructs those terrible events in a meaningful way for those who actually lived it. For those of us who were not there - it creates for us a realistic recap that stays in our minds as if we had been there.

- James Winegar, RLS Foundation

Running Wild

Some tsunami stories are running wild.

Did you know that there’s a monster at Aleipata?. Or so they tell me. With hushed voices and huge gestures to emphasize how big it is, how fast it runs, how frightening it looks. Apparently, it’s a creature that used to live in a cave on the beach. ( don’t ask me which beach as they can’t really say…) It was happily living in this cave, only venturing out at night to get food from the ocean. Big fish, definitely. Dolphins and sharks, probably. Whales, when it got really hungry. It didn’t used to bother anybody. But then the tsunami came and ruined it’s cave. And the fishing was disrupted. And all the machinery and the mess on the shore drove the monster up into the hills. Into the forests and bushes. The same forests and bushes where survivors are living in shacks and tents. And now the monster is hungry. It’s eating stray pigs and chickens now, definitely. And lost cows, probably. And people need to be careful, very careful. The monster is hungry and it doesn’t like living in the forest. It misses the ocean. What does it look like? Like a bear, they tell me. A huge, wild, hairy bear. Or a yeti/Abominable Snowman sounding creature. Only much bigger. They tell me I shouldn’t be going to the forest in Aleipata to do interviews. No way. Too dangerous. They ask me if I saw all the helicopters that would fly over there all the time after 29/09? They shake their heads knowledgeably – the helicopters were looking for the monster. Only the army didn’t want to tell people the truth, in case they got scared. Of the monster.

Did you know that there’s a crocodile at Aleipata? A woman calls the newspaper to report a strange creature in her village of Satitoa. She thinks it’s a crocodile. A week later, the Samoa Observer has a picture of a little, furry, weasel-like animal. Not a crocodile. A mongoose. Sighted at Satitoa. They think it came from Fiji on a shipping container. Villagers are warned to keep their children away from the mongoose. Special traps are brought from New Zealand. Hunting parties are organized. Success! The mongoose is caught. Everyone hopes it hitched a ride to Samoa as a lonely bachelorette, exiled from all friends and family. And not as a mongoose mum with lots of baby mongooses.

But the monster? Apparently it’s still out there. Somewhere.

Running wild like a wild tsunami story.