Thursday, August 26, 2010

Book Launch

I am thrilled ( and immeasurably relieved)to announce that the book -
Pacific Tsunami - 'Galu Afi'
will be launched in Samoa on the 27th of September, 2010. It will be followed by similar launches in American Samoa,Australia and New Zealand. Further details will be posted.

Friday, August 20, 2010

How ready were we?

Saleapaga, one hour after the wave.Photo by Bharat Chovan
Early in 2009, there was an opportunity to practice the evacuating – for real. On the 19th of March, a 7.6 magnitude earthquake hit 130 miles southeast of the Tongan capital Nukualofa and a tsunami warning was issued by the PTWC for surrounding islands. Including Samoa. US Peace Corp volunteer Sara Reeves was teaching when they got the phonecall from the Peace Corp office at 8:50am. “Cale came into my classroom making the finger across the throat gesture that initially led me to believe that the power must be out at his school, but instead meant that I should stop teaching, drop everything and evacuate.” They warned the vice-principal. “He told me that he already knew. I told him schools were supposed to be evacuating, but he didn’t seem to be too concerned.” The other staff showed little interest either. The two were the only ones from their coastside school to head inland on their bikes. They met other vehicles and some schoolchildren on the road headed in the same direction. Calmly and slowly. One family drove to the lowland grocery store first – “to buy snacks for the children and a newspaper so the morning wouldn’t be wasted”. Another only went to the evacuation point because their six year old daughter was frightened and wouldn’t stop harassing them about the “terrible tsunamis’ her teacher had taught them about.

In Tonga that morning, people didn’t seem to be too bothered either. A police spokesman said residents weren't taking the warning seriously. He was quoted by a UK newspaper, “People are out on the roads, laughing at the warning. They are not moving from the coast even though there has been a strong warning of a tsunami.”

Back in Samoa, the Reeves biked four miles back to school when they got the message that the warning had been cancelled. “Absolutely nothing had changed at school while I was gone and there was no reaction whatsoever to my sudden disappearance and bike ride to Faleata.”

At Fagaloa Bay on the far eastern tip of Upolu, unusually high wave heights were recorded. The sea ran in to swish through several beach fales, but no houses were damaged. And nobody was hurt. Hardly anyone anywhere else even registered that the sea had risen. People shrugged. ‘See, what’s all the fuss about? Those palagi say tsunami when it’s just a little galu lolo. A few big waves. It’s nothing.’

On the morning of September 29th were people remembering that day earlier in March? As DMO staff scrambled to contact the two telecommunication companies to send the SMS and as Chief DMO Filomena Nelson and FESA Commissioner Tony Hill were flying through traffic at Vaimoso?

As Tony hit the sirens at approximately 7:10am and radioed his staff to begin the evacuation of all low lying areas? As the alarms went on at the fire stations in town, Faleata and at the airport?

In those next minutes, Filomena was merely a passenger as Tony drove down every side road with the siren blaring and the PA system shouting, telling everyone to get out and get up.

Tsunami. Evacuate.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

"It really killed me seeing him go."

There were those who had to rush not away from the ocean – but towards it – as they moved to ensure the wheels for a disaster response were in motion. Palantina Toelupe is the CEO for Health in Samoa. She lives in the coastal village Vailoa, on the outskirts of Apia with her two sons. The younger son Vaitoa is Filomena Nelson’s right hand at the DMO office. As the earthquake built in intensity and then shuddered to a still, Vaitoa yelled for his mum and brother to run. “Mum, there’s going to be a tsunami. You’ve got about five minutes, you’ve got to run, you’ve got to go NOW!” Palantina ran but was bewildered to see Vaitoa accelerating in his car for the opposite direction. “Where are YOU going?” His reply clamped her with a cold fist of fear. “I have to go to Mulinu’u, to the Met office! I have to report, to get the computers up.” She clearly remembers that awful moment. “It was one of the most horrible decisions any mother could make, knowing that you were supposed to run for your life and yet your son is going towards this supposed problem…It really killed me seeing him go. I ran and took his older brother with me and we were the first ones to get up to Faleata, that’s how quickly we evacuated…but when we got up there, I stopped and said to myself, what am I running for? What about my job? I’ve forgotten everything! And so we turned around and came back home and when I got back, people were just starting to run – that’s how early we ran. We got to the house, quickly changed and we went straight to the hospital. I got there and people were asking, what’s going to happen next?And I said, prepare – get ready for the emergency.”

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

"Helter skelter in the summer storm." Gillian Brown's Survivor Story.

Gillian Brown receives care from Aust medics.
On 29/9 oblivious to what would happen, folk went about their morning holiday business. The Tafua family prepared for another one of their delectable community breakfast feasts. I was showering in the ablution block when suddenly everything started to shake. I thought the roof would come off. The past two nights had been stormy. As I live in tropical Queensland I assumed it was similar to a cyclonic wind. I was wrong. It was a tremor. An earthquake. I gave no thought to the imminent Tsunami. A Swedish lady, a German guy and I spoke. We were relieved we were standing on solid ground and it had not separated. How do you know about something if it is out of your realm of experience or concept? Everyone was in a different location and from what I now believe everyone responded differently.

I went back to the Fale and continued to pack for our road trip north to La Vasa. I was carrying my back pack to our hire car when I heard the desperate screams to run for high grounds. I wasn’t sure why but I knew we had to do so. Rob wasn’t in sight. I ran back to the Fale to warn him. I will never forget the mental snapshot I have from the Fale balcony of a young Samoan lad running along the beach screaming at people to go to higher ground. Also the distant view of the two sets of women who unwittingly lolled in the water. I believe two of those four are now sadly dead. I am presently haunted by thoughts of time, space, speed, what if...The words ‘helter skelter in the summer storm’ come to mind.

Rob would not come immediately. He continued to pack his day pack. I expressed the urgency of the situation. Finally we tried to leave the Fale through the front door. This was not to be the case. The clouds of whitewash consumed us from the front and underneath the floor boards. Oh f--- expletives expressed. Rob pushed me to the bed away from the open door. Within the Fale I felt trapped as though I was in a scene from the Wizard of Oz whereby Dorothy floated away in the house. I recall trying to kick the walls away with the hope we would climb through the louvres and escape. I was aware that we needed to prevent the walls from crashing in on us. Odd what you do. The wave was upon us. We were fighting for air space within the confines of the Fale. That first wave took us under and seemed to spit us out quickly.

The battle was still not over. The sea presented another challenge. I was still inside the walls of the Fale. I remember being dragged up with two huge poles firmly squeezed around my neck. It felt as though my neck would snap and fall limp. I apparently contorted my body and kicked the poles apart. Rob and I were in the same space calling for each other. Suddenly large sheets of metal appeared above us. They slid towards us. I thought I was going to be decapitated.

The second wave followed. I can’t speak for Rob but it took me under. I lost him. Initially I fought. Day pack was pulled from my arm. I struggled. Finally I couldn’t take in any more water and I made a conscious decision that if I was about to die I wanted to do it so peacefully. The see-through pool green colour surrounded me and was cleansing. I completely let go, allowing the water to do what it needed to with me. My body was outstretched. I was calm. It was an incredibly beautiful and serene experience. I died.

I have baulked at writing the next section. So many feelings and emotions are attached to survival, trauma and tragedy. I remember so much. I replay the events on my internal movie screen. I was told the wave was travelling at 964km per hour and lasted for approximately 7 to 8 minutes. I had no idea of length of time. There was a third wave. I have absolutely no recollection of it or anything else until I was simply present amongst the debris. No explanation. Just there.

The scenario was and still is incredulous. Finding Rob was foremost on my mind. I screamed for help. I scanned the destruction. It was surreal. Scared, weak. Dragged myself onto a platform. Perched. People started appearing in the water. They were calling for each other. Stranded! A seemingly insurmountable, impassable amount of debris. Urgent need to find others and help them to safety. In shock! Horrible! Survivor mode was necessary. Life was moving in front of us.

A small Samoan child scrambled out of the water to the muddy bank. I will never forget the look on his face. A waif of a child who showed the way. To my right a Samoan woman stood with her baby amongst the chaos. There were so few of us. 50 metres back to my left Rob screaming that he had a bone poking through his leg. Behind me Martina was calling help. Joseph her partner scrambled toward her. Charlie emerged injured and immediately went to the aid of the woman and child. In front of me there was a yellow canoe which became a water stretcher. I carried Martina to the bank first. Hearing our screams for help a young Samoan man ran into the carnage to help me place Rob onto the canoe. Together we balanced it and dragged him to shore.

Our next hurdle was to climb a cliff which was a zigzag path seeming to be about 300metres.
There was an urgent murmur that another wave was coming and we had to run for high ground. We were all injured. Some more so than others and some suffering excruciating pain which was at times debilitating. It was a tale of extraordinary human endurance and support. Together Samoans and foreigners coaxed, motivated, carried and coerced each other to the top of that cliff. It was amazing and unforgettable..

There is a saying that “pigs fly”. Martina, Joseph and I discovered this not to be true. We remembered they rolled like bowling balls ready to skittle human ten pins. What else was nature going to bring? I don’t know what happened to the pigs but thankfully they didn’t hit us.

Sadly the saga did not end at that point. Life emerged at the top of that cliff. A Fale and local farm were steps away. Water. People. Road. Urgency to find higher ground. The ambulant were without shoes. Bits of bandage wrapped around their feet. Utilities carried the injured. Wailing. Screams of pain and distress. Disbelief yet reality creeping in. Folk in shock not sure what to do. Instinct crept in. Surrounded by death and loss. Breathe.

Next was the Lalomanu Medical centre. Survival to be embraced. Finding those who were alive. Relief and tragedy intertwined. Stories told. Blood. Bandages. Injuries recognised. Suffering. Missing children, relatives and mates. Not knowing. Emotional torment. Wailing. Breathe. Medical staff and volunteers compassionately, tirelessly, willingly gave of themselves. Grateful. Thankful.

The Samoan Government sent out a warning that another wave was about to hit. We needed to evacuate the Medical Centre and again relocate to higher ground. Those who could walk did. Injured were transported in utes and trucks. The Tafua family’s house which was at the skeletal stage of construction was generously opened to us. A place of shelter.

It was at this point I became aware that in times of crisis we all bring our different personalities to the fore. Folk took on different roles. Preparing the space for injured. Human chain moving timber. Clearing water from the concrete. Putting down mats. Making sure the injured were as comfortable as possible. Blankets, tarpaulins, water, carrots, Sao biscuits, government register of names. Organising, managing, motivating, nursing. Leaders and doers. Cava man contacting government agencies. Feeling of importance. NZ doctor at the site. People in shock. Sitting wailing. Grief magnifying. Trying to make sense of what had happened.

At this point I was still ambulant. My ribs were broken with deep cuts to the right foot and arm. I could feel the lumps on my head growing. Drying blood. Wound swabs on the ground. Infection growing. Carer mode in place. My first priority was Rob however there were many in need. Horrific stories started to unfold. Children had been ripped out of their parents grasp and taken. Gone forever. Bodies not found. Grief. Too horrible to write. I remember -

*As soon as water arrived, I grabbed it. Knew we’d need it later. Girl photographing
*Water – ambulance – Richard – make sure Robs medical needs are attended to – stay strong -
*Medical centre – swapping patients – some people angry we had to wait - that pregnant woman is now dead.
*Transported to Apia via Lalomanu – destruction – debris – cars not making way for ambulance – now I know some were looters but many were trying to locate the dead– village’s gone, people trying to sweep up an insurmountable amount of debris. Futile Destruction. Despair.
* Ambulance had a flat tyre – transported by ute to hospital – me with Heather Dixon – consulate advisor - mayhem.
*Outpatients – Rob bed opposite – wounds stitched – scared frightened – urgent – separated from Rob – x-ray. Met 50ish Kiwi women who survived swim – Had been in a tidal wave in Hawaii 2 years prior –was in same place as 20 year old girls who died.Pediatric ward turned into surgical ward
*Sam - beautiful Samoan lad whose mother and sister had died and his dad lying in bed with terrible wounds, Sam bought me a cup of coffee, such a generous gesture and it tasted so sweet - people in shock, our bottle the drinking only water for everyone. Ward filling up, toilet floors covered with bloody water, washing people, Rob turning white with blue lips, oxygen mask. *Media crews constantly looming and wanting stories.
*Survivor TV show Drs volunteering time and wound dressings, Samoan nurses doing 24 hour shifts, Setting up a functional ward within 24 hours, an amazing achievement considering many of those nurses didn't know where their loved ones were
*Australian guy who was a volunteer - we had met in supermarket two days prior - now re-meeting under horrible circumstances. He gave us 10ST and NZ Dr gave us 20ST, egg sandwich, coke and water. I was finally getting some treatment to my wounds which just seemed to grow with infection.
*Fa'afafine nurse ‘a woman’s work is never done’.
*Advised that Australian Gov’t would get us home in the next 24 hours. Bill Griggs team arrived with medical supplies. Ambulant were flow back to Oz first. Makeshift ward fully functioning with ward rounds within 24 hours. No sleep. Painful ribs, wounds growing, exhaustion, shock. Samoans give us biscuits and apples. Samoa Survivor reality TV show doctors help and give medical supplies. Overseas news teams everywhere. All wanting to grab a story.
*Gillian and Gary. Distraught over death of their son Alfie. So sad. Claire identifying her friend Vivien in the makeshift morgue. Sorrow. Charlie on her own. Washing the injured. Given clothes from volunteer agencies. Sarong toothpaste and soap. So generous. Shower.Given contact details for relief agency. Long day. Ask Nz Dr to look at my wounds. Less ambulant and very painful. Wounds growing.
*Advised we would be transported home that day. Relief as we were worried that Rob would be operated on in Samoa. Fear of infection and the unknown.
*Comforting each other. Samoan lament which resonated throughout the ward. 6 Aussies transported to the airport to catch C170 Hercules flight. Rob and I separated. Scared and relieved to be going home. Flight late by a couple of hours. Rob on morphine. All of us carried by stretcher onto flight. Fantastic Drs and nurses. Finding veins.

Story still continues and still trying to keep my head above water.
Gillian Brown

Thursday, August 5, 2010

I just cried because I had lost hope.

Tafi Sang Yum at the new Saleapaga inland.
In Samoa, the elderly rarely live alone. The family will ensure that someone stays with them to make their food, help with chores, and listen to their stories. To be their child. Someone young. Usually single. Someone strong. A grandchild, a cousin, a nephew. Someone like Tafi Sang Yum. Twenty-three years old. With tattooed bronze arms that paddle in their spare time for the National Outrigger Canoeing team. When they weren’t digging taro or making fa’alifu for his grandparents, Mata and Su’e Esera.

The Esera’s were in their seventies and enjoying the simple rewards of a lifetime devoted to hard work and raising their family. Their eight children were all grown, educated and working – contributing to their parents retirement. They all worked in Apia - one son was a police officer assigned to the Nafanua Patrol Boat. That September he was overseas on marine police training. Tafi was the chosen grandson who lived with Mata and Su’e in their seaside home. They had three beach fales they would rent to visitors. And a taro plantation. A car. When Tafi’s paddling team would come for a Saturday swim, the Esera’s would make them a proverbial feast. Tender-baked fish that melted in your mouth, steaming hot taro that only the day before had been in the black earth, thick sweet koko from beans that Su’e herself had roasted and ground. Tafi was their child. In that house there was much love and affection.

When the first wave came, Tafi was sweeping leaves in the back yard. His grandparents were in the house. They tried to get to the car but the water was already upon them, swishing around their legs. Again, the size of the initial wave was deceptive. Su’e called out to her husband to come back in the house to shelter from the wave there. Tafi and Mata ran back inside – just before the next wave hit the house.

“The wave took the car. We were bracing ourselves inside the house…I thought the house would stand. I tried to hold on but I felt like my hands were getting electrocuted. I let go and the water washed me out. That’s when we were separated”

Tafi is strong – but the wave was stronger. The house was destroyed. “My body felt like I was being beaten by someone because I was battered by trees and rubbish in the water. My body felt numb and I couldn’t do anything. The wave took me out with it and I hung on to a coconut tree trunk that was floating. Then when the wave went down, I swam back to the shore.”

Tafi stood alone.“ I stood there and looked to where my house used to be and I couldn’t see my grandparents anywhere. I just cried at that time because I had lost hope.”

Mata Esera was found several hours later but when nightfall came, Su’e was still missing. “On Wednesday morning we came back early to look for my grandma. We found her just after 8am behind another family’s property because most of the stuff from our house was found there and that’s where we found my grandma buried under corrugated iron and her skin had turned black. Like she was burned.”

Tafi’s uncle Ofisa came home in time for his parent’s funeral. Crisp, white dress uniforms filled the church as the marine police paid their respects.

Two months on, Tafi helps his cousins build their home in the Saleapaga bush. And clear land for the new taro plantation. Grief is edged with guilt. He is the chosen grandson of Mata and Su’e Esera. Chosen to be their child. Chosen to take care of them.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

We just want to go home.

Injured are airlifted out by the RNZAF.
When people are hurt and afraid, all they want is to get home. As fast as possible. Foreign nationals critically injured in the Samoa tsunami were airlifted out of Samoa. One woman remembers talking to the injured tourists in the hospital the morning after the tsunami. “They were so polite and appreciative of everything we were doing for them. We asked them if they needed anything else and they said, no, no we’re fine… But then, the first medical team arrived from Australia. They walked into the ward and as soon as they spoke to these tourists, those girls just burst into tears, they said, please, please can you help us, please get us out of here,we just want to go home. My heart just went out to them, I cried inside for them.”

The first airlift went out on Wednesday afternoon, the last on Friday. Aussie paramedic Steve Williams helped get the patients ready and moved out to the helicopters that would ferry them to the international airport some distance out of Apia. “The evacuation team were fantastic. Their attitude with the patients was really good – like if it was someone who was a bit large, they’d lift them on the stretcher and they’d all scream and grunt and carry on joking, overemphasise it, get the patient laughing. They actually played around with the patients and tried to make it more enjoyable for them, showing humor in what was a really scary situation for some of them.”

The helicopters landed in a small grassy patch between the emergency morgue and the wards. “The last lift was 8:30 at night, pitch black and so the pilot flew in blind and watching them come in was just magnificent. They had to land in this small space and it’s not even flat, there’s a dip in the ground and they landed in the dip, and I’m going geeze! Even in daylight it was pretty impressive and you think back and you’re just so impressed with what these pilots did. I watched all the patients go and it was a really nice feeling when the last chopper took off that night, knowing everyone was on their way home to their families.”

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The most painful thing.

Sina Ale kisses baby Jai Trafford on holiday at Taufua Beach Fales.
Taufua Beach Fales was started back in 1970 by the patriarch of the family, Taufua Leifi. His daughter Faafetai (better known as ‘Tai’) explained, “It started out as fales that our family used for resting on Sundays after lunch, we’d go to the beach and sleep there. Then we started having tourists come in asking if they could rent the fales for a day or two and we’d allow them.” And so it began, modestly, with a few huts on the white sand and over the years it grew. In 1999, Taufua Snr handed over the business to Tai and her husband Sili Apelu. Initially there was a temptation to completely change the look of the place, to do away with the beach fales and build a more Western style resort. “But we thought it would be very un-Samoan to do that. We decided to maintain the beach fales but to at least make them more comfortable for the tourists. Over ten years, we have built on slowly, adding new fales with the availability of funds…that has been a blessing in disguise because it has been a time for us to learn and to nurture our workers and that is where our strength is. I think what makes this place special is the atmosphere that we created. Guests always feel at home as if this is their home as well. We make them feel very welcome and we see that in the repeat guests. Many of them return, its like friends and family coming back. Of course, Lalomanu has its own beauty, like the sand and the clear blue lagoon and all those things, but service – quality service and the attitude towards the tourists is what makes it special.”

New Zealander Sara Trafford delighted in that family atmosphere. “What really stood out for me was how great everyone was with my son – from the ladies in the office, to the young men waiting tables – everyone helped to look after him and gave him loads of cuddles and hugs. They would often come and whisk him away from me for a walk so I could eat my dinner, go snorkeling or just have an hour by myself, it was wonderful! Even the night watchman would go and sit outside my fale in the evenings after I put Jai to sleep and then run to the restaurant to get me when he woke up for a feed. When I would get up in the night to soothe Jai, the night watchman would shine his torch in to make sure we were both okay.” Tai’s sister-in-law Sina helped in the business. She, had three little ones of her own, the youngest - Etimani Jnr, was the same age as Jai and the two babies would bathe in a plastic tub – one rosy-cheeked peaches and cream, the other sugary cinnamon and raisin cheerfulness.

On 29/09 fourteen members of the Taufua family were killed in the tsunami, including all three of Sina Ale's children.

Sili says of 29/09, “The loss of the children is the most painful thing. The elderly had lived their lives, but the young kids were so helpless, nobody could help them. Our nephews and nieces, even though they had their own parents they call us mum and dad because we look after some of them. They would get up early in the morning and come to our room, mum, mum, hungry, fia ai. The physical association with the kids, every morning, every evening, they would always be asking us for something…they would come looking for us. We’re missing them, because even though we believe in God and we are sure they are in a better place, sometimes there’s a feeling of emptiness, not being able to see them anymore.”

"I knew they were past helping."

A doctor sent to Lalomanu Hospital was thirty-one year old Teriki Puni. “It was shocking to see how severe the disaster was – you really felt helpless with the amount of people coming and bringing the dead and asking if you could do something…many of them just broke down and cried, they knew that there was nothing to be done but I think they just wanted to be told, they wanted that reassurance that nothing could be done. Can you help my baby? And you saw this baby was just completely purple and you open up their mouth and there’s just debris and everything, it was just covered in rubbish. I knew they were past helping. It was quite heartbreaking just to feel like you’re not able to do anything. But for those who were severely injured but still alive, you could do something and just try and stabilize them before you rushed them off to National.”