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.

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