Friday, September 30, 2011

29/09 "I don't want to remember. It's too hard."

Photo by Pele Wendt.

I didnt want to do this. I didnt want to talk about this. I didnt want to remember that today marks a year since the release of the 'Pacific Tsunami' book. And two years since the event which changed so many peoples lives, so drastically - forever. I didnt want to think that tomorrow morning, Samoan time - families in many different places around the world, will pause to reflect on what happened that morning when the earth shook and the ocean answered.

I didnt want to remember what I was doing. What I was thinking. What I was feeling when my natural disaster paranoia was actually realized and yes, a tsunami really did happen. And people were dead. And villages were wiped out. I didnt want to open my mind to the memory of organizing with an amazing group of women to make soup and hotdogs, going to the disaster zone - like so many others - with nothing but the fragile hope that we could try to help, in some small way, any way, possible. I didnt want to think about the woman sitting by the side of the road. Watching. Waiting, "for them to find my baby." The uselessness of giving her a cup of soup. Her thanks. Her dead smile. The useless hug I gave her. I didnt want to remember the tears I cried as we drove away. The same useless tears Im crying now.

But most of all, I didnt want to think about the hours, days, weeks, months spent interviewing people. As they opened their shattered lives and hearts - to me - and to you. Sharing their stories. Of loss, pain, suffering, faith, heroism, hope, anger and bitterness. The three hours spent with Jared and Netta Schwalger as they relived the day the wave took their two children and their parents. The days spent searching for the body of their son. The nights filled with dreams as a little boy called to them from a mangrove swamp, 'Daddy, Mummy where are you? Why arent you coming to get me?" The month spent in hospital as volunteer specialists from NZ and Australia battled to save Netta's leg. All the times I listened to that audio recording of their interview. Again and again. Not wanting to get their story wrong. Not wanting to mess it up. Not wanting to somehow write it any less than what it was. An experience repeated many times over with others and their stories. With Mika and Ave from Lalomanu who lost their two children -the father who's little boy was never found. Who went to the morgue every day to wait. To look at just one more body. One more incomplete piece of a person. In the hopes that his child would be found. And Ave who could hold her remaining son and say with assurance and faith - "The tsunami took two of my children but I thank God that He has left me this one. This is the child that will have a future." With Taitasi from Leone in American Samoa building a bonfire so that her missing daughter would not "be lost and afraid in the dark." With rescuers like Comm Tony Hill and Vaughn Simpson. Doctors like Ben Matalavea and Riki Puni. Nurses like Henrietta Aviga. Public health responders like Andrew Peteru. Counsellors like Elena Peteru and Malia Manuleleua. So many people. So many stories.

No, I dont want to do this.

Anniversaries and memorials are important things. They are there to remind us. To make sure we don't forget. Events, people, experiences, emotions. But for some people the tsunami lasted longer than for others. For those living with the loss of their children. Their parents and extended family. For those struggling to rebuild a life, a home, a village, a community. For those who battle nightmares. Of working with the search teams. The body recovery. For too many people, the tsunami is something they want, they need - to forget.

A year ago, I went back to give people their copy of the book.Two weeks ago I went back again. To give money from the book sales to survivors who had shared their stories. Many greeted me with smiles and welcoming hugs. Many confessed to me, that they could not remember ever being interviewed. One mother said, "When I got my copy of the book and saw my picture and read my story, I couldnt believe it because I cant remember telling it to you. Its like I've blocked so much out from that bad time. I dont want to remember any of it. I am saving this book for my children and their children. I never want them to forget what happened here. What happened to our family and to our village. But me? I dont want to remember. Its too hard."

I continue to be grateful for the opportunity of being chosen to be a gatherer - a recorder - and then a storyteller for so many people of the Galu Afi of 29/09. The experience has changed me, changed my life, my perspective in so many ways. I continue to be humbled by the trust that so many survivors and rescuers placed in me, and in you - the readers of this book. I still feel that the book could have and should been so much better. Could have and should have spoken so much more powerfully about so many people's strength, courage and endurance. I read it and I see errors. And names and faces of people that were left out. And Im sorry that the record wasnt better. More accurate. I wish I could have been a stronger person, a better writer. I went with Lagi So'oalo and interviewed people and I cried. I wrote their stories and I cried. I proofed and edited with Joe and Celine Keil - and there were more tears. If I hadnt done so much crying, maybe it would have been a better book. One more worthy of the stories shared.

I have stayed close to one family in particular from the tsunami project. Mika and Ave from Lalomanu. My sister Pele paid for their children's schoolfees after the tsunami. Sent money for gifts of food, clothing and other essentials. On my last trip back, I met Ave's newest son. A little boy they have named Aleki - after the son they lost. The son who is on the Missing Persons list from 29/09. I held him in my arms, soothed him while he fussed for his mum and was humbled by the blessing, the miracle of new life. Mika and Ave live in a small, rough house built with tsunami funds. Yes, they are struggling to move on. To rebuild. To make a new life for themselves. But Ave said it best, "I hold this boy, and I remember the baby I lost. And I think about my daughter who died. But the Lord has given us another child. We have a new life to look forward to. Blessings and praise be to God."

There is a lot of reasons why we honor this anniversary. Why we pause to remember. We remember those who died. Those who served and gave so much of themselves. We ensure lessons learned are being put into action.

But for me? If Im being totally honest. On this anniversary of the 29/09 tsunami?

I dont want to remember. I dont want to talk about it. Because I'm still trying really hard to forget.

Remembering 29/09

Mika and Ave in 2009.

An interview with Radio Australia on the anniversary of 29/09. An interview with Mika from Lalomanu.

'Pacific Tsunami Galu Afi'

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Lani Goes Back to the People of the Galu Afi

From the Samoa Observer - 7th Sept, 2011.

Faletaulupe with her mother Suliane in 2009. Saleaumua..

“This is a blessing for us at a very sad time, thank you so much.” These were the words of Faletaulupe Lui of Saleaumua on Friday 2nd of September, as she gratefully accepted her monetary gift from the sale profits of the book Pacific Tsunami Galu Afi .

Two years ago, author Lani Wendt Young interviewed Faletaulupe and her elderly mother Suliane about their tsunami survivor story. “Both women were so welcoming of me and generously shared their 29/09 experiences. Suliane was over 95yrs old and so I was particularly interested in speaking with her about her recollections of previous historical tsunami events in the area.”

In October 2010, Lani returned to Saleaumua to gift the family with their complimentary copies of the book and once again, was able to visit with Faletaulupe and her mother. “To be able to give survivors a copy of the book that contained their story was the most personally rewarding part of this project. People had entrusted their stories to a complete stranger, not knowing whether a book would really happen. Many people were moved to tears when they were able to see their experiences recorded in a book that has an international audience. I’m grateful to the Australian Govt Aid program that funded the printing of the books, making it possible for us to give away over 200 copies to survivors and rescuers in Samoa and American Samoa.”

As originally envisioned by Mr Joe Keil – the owner and editor of the book – the purpose of the project was “to ensure that a record was made of the disaster and any profits from the books sale were to be given back to those survivors who featured in the book.”

It has been a year since Pacific Tsunami Galu Afi was launched and Lani has spent the last two days, travelling to Aleipata and Falealili districts, giving over sixty different families a monetary gift. Mr Keil explained, “We have not yet sold all the 5,000 books but we wanted to give people a mealofa on the tsunami anniversary month, something that could be helpful for their families as they continue to rebuild their lives. Hopefully next year as book sales continue, we will again be able to do something similar.”

People were pleasantly surprised to receive the money. Tina Niusila of Saleapaga said, “I never expected this money. I was so happy to get my copy of the book last year and I share it with my family. It’s very important that we have a record like this, I never want my children to forget these things that happened.” 9yrold Perota Susuga of Saleapaga was the youngest person interviewed for the book and he was thrilled to also be remembered with his envelope. Lotolua Niumatapele of Lepa said, “I treasure my copy of the book because it’s a valuable record for all of us. I encourage everyone to read it and I even lent my book to the principal of our village school so that she could share it with the students.”

Lani is now based in New Zealand and she appreciated the opportunity to travel to Samoa and meet again with families she had interviewed for the book. It was a bittersweet visit with Faletaulupe’s family though as they were preparing for a funeral – Suliane died on Sunday last week, passing away peacefully in her sleep. Lani said, “I was sorry to have missed seeing Suliane again and I’m glad that the book project is able to help her family in some small way at this sad time.”
Tofilau Afatasi of Poutasi with his book and money.
Lotolua Niumatapele of Lepa with her gift.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Short Fiction up on Amazon

An announcement of amazonian proportions...I'm very happy to tell you that I (finally) figured out how to publish stuff on Amazon and there are FIVE of my short stories now listed.

*The Beast that came from the Sea.
*Sina the Snake Killer
*High School is a Jungle
*Don't Tell
*A True Samoan Woman

Humbled to see that a few readers have already taken the time to read and review them, thank you very much for the love! Coming soon: A complete collection of short fiction...20 pieces of sometimes funny, sometimes sad, sometimes painful, sometimes nutty writing - all from me. Entitled: A True Samoan Woman.

I always appreciate hearing from fellow readers and writers - whether it's a blog comment or a writing here's hoping more of you...make some noise!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

What people are saying about "Pacific Tsunami Galu Afi"

Thoughts on his reading experience, from someone who was there. Who lived through it, worked through it - and then shared his story in the book.

I wanted to thank you for the great work you had done in putting this book together.

I think it is amazing how the Lord put us all where we needed to be at such a time. How many of any of us in our lifetime of professions and as individuals get to witness and manage a tsunami or a pandemic of global proportions? It is very likely that these things won’t happen for another 150 years, which makes your book ever so valuable.

I read the Pago and Tongan parts of the book last. Interestingly enough the images from these accounts are the most vivid to me even though I am not familiar with these places and people. You did great justice to these countries.

After all the footage that was taken by us and others, and my own experience on the day of the tsunami, this book was able to put many of the peices together. I have new respect for colleagues and people who did the most amazing things.

I don’t like to reflect worthlessly on what happened; it has to be constructive. This is why I really appreciate your book. It ties emotion with advice, lessons learnt and stories of heroism. I can’t wait to read the book once it is translated.

So well done Lani, you’ve done the most brave and honest of tasks! Your book will greatly benefit our future generations, and that is why it brings a more complete sense of closure for me. Our descendents will read about a part of our professional lives that otherwise only a few would have known, and they too will be encouraged to stand up to the challenges of their time.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Community is vital to survival.

Anna at talks about her experience visiting Aleipata and reading "Pacific Tsunami Galu Afi". Anna's travelling the world and you can follw her adventures online.

"Today I woke up at 5:45 am to catch the Lalomanu bus back into Apia, the capital of Samoa. I'm on the island of Upolu, the one everyone says is "not the real Samoa" and "doesn't have the good beaches" and "blah, blah, blah". Through SERVAS (Man, I love this organization, it's made my trip), I managed to connect with a woman who runs a wellness retreat in Salea'aumua (which I can finally pronounce).

Salea'aumua (sal-ay-uh-ow-moo-ah) is in Aleipata (come on, it's not that hard, you can do it!), which is the district of Upolu that was most seriously damaged by the 2009 tsunami. Read: Aleipata was basically destroyed. Most people that died in the tsunami in Samoa, died here. One family, the Taufuas, who run a beach fale resort here, lost 13 loved ones, spanning four generations. Driving through town, the road is several meters closer to the sea than it was before (shore washed away), and the foundations of houses that were leveled are still there. People either rebuilt next to them or moved far inland to escape the unpredictability of the sea. One village, Saleapaga (sal-ay-uh-pan-gah), completely moved inland except for one determined business owner, now the only building in the old Saleapaga. These people, if they are anything, they are resilient.

I stayed with Lee Letiu for 4 nights. During that time, I had the opportunity to attend church, be treated to yet ANOTHER Sunday family umu, spend a day visiting a secondary school (at which I managed to score a copy of Samoa's secondary science curriculum goals - OMG!), and read an incredible book that wove together tsunami survivor stories (which Lee was included in). Not only did I get to experience village life where there are no resorts, I got to see a school, talk to teachers and a principal, observe classes, and most of all - learn from people who have honestly looked death in the face and somehow managed to survive.

I highly recommend the book to anyone who is interested in what the tsunami was like here, what the response was, and how people coped economically, emotionally, etc. It's called Pacific Tsunami - Galu Afi by Lani Wendt Young. It's incredibly well-written, and although I'm positive that being in the place while I read it was a big part of it's meaning, I still think everyone should read it.

Now, I come from a solid family. There was love in our house growing up, and there is still love - we are strong and united, and I know my family would support me in a heartbeat if I needed them (hell, they are right now). But I was blown away by the degree of family support outlined in the Aleipata survivors' stories. Remember the Taufua family? They lost 13 family members because they spent so much time saving their GUESTS, because they considered them as important as family. People ran from the first wave, and ran back to save family, friends, strangers - because in Samoa, the village, the district, the island is connected by extended family. Community is vital to survival. In fact, after the tsunami, there were no refugee camps - because EVERYONE had family to take them in somewhere. If they had no family left, someone was kind enough to include them in their family that day. I mean, the society is not without flaws, but the family structure is thought to have saved many people in this particular disaster just because the response was so immediate.

Anyway, it struck me as really beautiful, and sitting by the ocean reading that book on a calm day was so unnerving - when just over a year ago the ocean took a lot from these people, yet they continue to live in harmony with it, fishing, swimming..."

Lee Letiu with her copy of the book at Saleaumua.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Earthquake and Tsunami in Japan, 11 March, 2011

To watch live footage of the tsunami sweeping through areas in Japan is to really see and understand what 29/09 survivors meant when they spoke of..."A beast that leapt out of the sea and ran towards us. It was the colour of night... It was like a wild animal with huge fins, but it was pitch black and the mist or sea spray that was coming out of it was also black, like the smoke from a umu. We saw the wave coming like fire, so we ran.” We are watching cars trying to escape the broiling onslaught of black water and churning debris. People standing on rooftops, people running, people waving and screaming for help.

It is difficult to really comprehend what we are watching. But one thing is certain. As one of my children exclaimed softly - "Mum, the tsunami that hit us in Samoa was a baby compared to this one."

Friday, January 28, 2011

Congratulations Matt Anderson

A looooong time ago ( it seems) Mr Joe Keil approached the Australian High Commissioner, His Excellency Matt Anderson, about the Samoa Tsunami book project. Joe thought maybe, just maybe, Australia would be able to 'give us a small donation to assist with the printing, possibly a couple of thousand if they could spare it...' And so i met Mr Matt Anderson for the first time. I gave him a copy of the first ROUGH draft of the book ( filled with shocking errors and rambly sentences that defied all structure) Mr Anderson read it. He took it home and gave it to his wife Lou - and she read it. And they were able to see past the errors and the drivel. They believed in the project. They supported it. And a few weeks later, AUSAID very generously agreed to pay for the printing cost of 5,000 copies. I was fortunate enough to work together with Matt and Lou as the book went to editing and then to print and then to launch - and have been so impressed with their comittment to working on projects that really serve needs in the Samoan community. From Surf Lifesaving on our beaches to new drinking water fountains in our rural schools and sooooo much more - they have brought an unparalled enthusiasm, sincerity and far-reaching vision to their diplomatic mission. I was thrilled to read that Matt's work was recognized with an Australian Public Service Medal. Congratulations Matt and Lou - you will both be greatly missed in Samoa.

Australia’s High Commissioner, Matthew John Anderson has been honoured by that country’s Governor General for his work in Samoa.Yesterday, His Excellency Anderson was awarded a Public Service Medal in the Australia Day Honours list. The medal’s citation reads: “For outstanding public service in leading the Australian Government's consular and humanitarian response to the September 2009 tsunami in Samoa.”

The Honours list provides national and formal recognition for many Australians who have made a significant difference to their communities. Mr Anderson, who is leaving Samoa at the end of the month, was not immediately available for a comment yesterday. But he is immensely proud of Australia’s effort to help Samoa after the devastating tsunami of 2009 during which 143 people were killed.

In the Canberra Times yesterday, Mr Anderson said he was deeply humbled. He praised his staff at the Australian High Commission in Samoa and all Australians who helped.
Mr Anderson said his time in Samoa has “been the most professional and personally rewarding experience of my time in government.

“The four years here have been extraordinary due in large part to the generosity of the Samoan people and the expanding bilateral relationship. I wouldn't have wished to be anywhere else in the world for the past four years,” he told Radio Australia.
He remembers the tsunami as if it was yesterday.

“Well I'm a father of three young kids, so at that stage my youngest was two and as you can imagine at quarter to seven in the morning we were up, well and truly up, and I was actually getting him changed in the bedroom when the tremors started,” he said.“So we felt the tremors and my son told me that he thought that someone was in his cupboard. So once his cupboard doors were shaken off their hinges and we scooped up the other kids and stood out on the road for a little while just listening to things crash inside the house.

“And then when it stopped we came inside and I rang my staff in the other compound to do a head count and make sure everyone was ok, and then we swung into action.
“My emergency team met at post at 7:30 in the morning, and the first Australians were delivered to the hospital by 8 o'clock because the tsunami struck at about ten past seven.

“We were in the hospitals, I had my staff in hospitals by 8 o'clock. Apia was off limits because of the concerns for another tsunami or a follow-up, so we couldn't actually get down to the High Commission on Beach Road.And once they lifted the cordon, I came into work, opened up the building and by 11 o'clock we had negotiated the formal request for assistance from the Samoan government by midday.

“And we wacked that off to Canberra so they had that before they first met for their first disaster meeting in Canberra. And then we just proceeded to support those Australians that we knew or in hospitals or that were in harms way, and certainly by that stage we already knew that Marie had passed away, so we had our first fatality, had 10 or 12 Australians in hospitals at that stage.

“But on our lists we estimate that on any given day there's about 300 Australians that are holidaying in Samoa and so we had to find them. And that was the real challenge, just trying to find out how many of those were on the south coast when we had lost all communication with the south coast, and how many of them might have been to the hospitals, how many of them might have been completely unharmed and just get the post very, very busy to them, support the wonderful Australians who jumped on planes, the doctors, the surgeons, the anaesthetists, the nurses, the paramedics, the police who then came in and within 24 hours that were here providing lifesaving support.

“So there was the immediate consular aspect of just look trying to establish that my own staff were well and their whereabouts, then the consular aspect, then functioning as a mission, because my job there's nothing terribly sophisticated about what I had to do in those days, it was just trying to keep the mission running, keep my staff safe and motivated and provide direction to those who deployed to assist.

“And the one thing I will tell your listeners Geraldine is that the Australians who came out here that day and the days and the weeks that followed were the best. There's no shinier example of what's good about Australia than watching a Hercules arrive and the people that get off and just roll up their sleeves and say let's go. And I've never been more proud to be an Australian than I was in those days and weeks.” (Read the full interview in the Sunday Reading on Sunday).

Mr Anderson has been Australia's High Commissioner to Samoa since January 2007. His four-year term comes to a close at the end of the month when he returns to Canberra.

Before his Samoan appointment, he was Spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. He had served overseas as Counsellor in Port Moresby from 2003 to 2005; Chief Negotiator, Peace Monitoring Group, Bougainville in 2001 and 2002; and Third/Second Secretary in Cape Town from 1997 to 2000.In Canberra, Mr Anderson worked in a range of bilateral and multilateral areas.He joined the Department in 1995 after serving as a commissioned officer in the Australian Defence Force.

Mr Anderson holds a Masters Degree from Monash University, an Arts Degree from Deakin University and is a Graduate of the Royal Military College, Duntroon.

Married to Lou, they have three beautiful children, Meg, Kate and Harry.They were farewelled during a gathering at Sails Restaurant last night.
From the Samoa Observer, 27 January , 2011

Saturday, January 15, 2011

'Pacific Tsunami - Galu Afi' Available on TradeMe

We're on TradeMe, NZ. You can purchase 'Pacific Tsunami- Galu Afi' online at the following link.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

What are they saying about 'Pacific Tsunami - Galu Afi'?

"a small but important part of the healing process this beautifully crafted book is an interconnected series of tales from the survivors, rescuers, medical teams and aid workers, recording a significant moment in Pacific history. Woven graciously and empathetically by Lani, the book tells stories of villagers and tourists alike." Chris Cocker, Editor, Pacific Connection, Issue 22, Pacific Cooperation Foundation

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

'The reef was rising up out of the ocean.'

Months after 29/09, schoolbooks still lie scattered along the Poloa shore.
At the very tip of Tutuila is the village of Poloa. It is a narrow strip of coast at the foot of a steep cliff. There is only room for one car coming or going down into the village. The most distinctive feature about Poloa is the noise. It is difficult to hear yourself think here. The surf crashes angrily, repeatedly on the jagged line of rocks a few feet from the shore. The roaring never stops. It is not an ocean for children to play in.

Poloa is a small village. A cluster of solid homes, a church, a school. Thanks to American dollars though, it is a far from meagre place. The school is new. A stunning steel beamed building with criss cross rafters. It had a reading room, a cluster of classrooms, a bathroom block. Curved steel chairs and desks. Thirty-three year old Simao Masoa worked there as a teacher’s aide. She had been living in Hawaii but decided to return home two years ago to be with her parents, her grandmother, two sisters and their children.

Simao was asleep when the earth shook. “I thought somebody was playing a joke on me shaking my bed. It didn’t even dawn on me that it was an earthquake. But then it kept getting harder so I jumped out of bed.”

Simao’s family ran outside. Her grandmother was distressed as the earth continued to rock. “She was panicking, she was thinking that because the earthquake was going on so long that maybe the earth was going to crack open. I was telling my dad to watch the ocean for any changes, but my grandma was saying, no, don’t look at the sea, look down on the ground!”

As the earth seemed to still finally, lines of children from the elementary school started streaming past the front of their house. The teachers were evacuating them to where the road curved up the mountain. Simao’s father called out to them.

“Hey, where are you kids going?”
“We’re going home. No more school because of the earthquake.”
For reasons he himself cannot explain, Simao’s father urged the children to move faster.
“Don’t walk – you should run. Go on, run up the road fast!”

Encouraged, the children let loose with whoops of glee and started running and shouting as they danced along the sand scattered street. The teachers who were bringing up the rear, called out to contain them and gave Simao’s dad disapproving looks as they chased after their young charges.
“I don’t know what made my Dad tell them to run, but it gave them pretty good time for them to get out of there because we didn’t know it but we were counting seconds at that time…”
Simao and her family had been standing outside for about ten minutes when it happened. Something that never happened in Poloa. Silence. Total and complete silence. The ocean that never stilled – stopped roaring. It was an eerie, unearthly quiet.

“Everything stopped. Everything. There were no waves. No noise. Everything went quiet.”
The ocean dropped. And because of their stones throw nearness to the reef, Simao clearly saw the coral rock shelf as it was revealed. “The water didn’t suck back. It just dropped down. It looked like the reef was rising up out of the ocean.” Simao yelled for her dad. He was quick to respond. “He turned around and said oh my God, get inside the truck right now. Our truck was parked in the garage. I ran and got the car keys and shouted to my grandma, let’s go!”

As they were climbing into the big truck, Simao remembered their neighbour. “Next door to us lives a paralysed man, he had a stroke some years ago and can’t walk. I saw his son outside the house and I called for him to get his dad, get your dad, get him out of the house now!”

The father is a large man. His son dragged him outside in a blanket, Simao and her dad helped to lift him into the vehicle’s back passenger seat beside grandma. Simao was driving with her father beside her. Her mother sat in the back of the truck with Simao’s sister. They reversed frantically and began speeding along the road that ran parallel with the fast returning sea. As they drove, Simao’s mother was screaming out to every house – Galu lolo! Tsunami! Run, run! They stopped beside the Reverend’s house when they saw his car still in the driveway. Reverend, get out, get out, the wave is coming! They stopped at another house that had not evacuated but the woman refused to leave. “My mom kept telling her to get in the car, to come with us because the wave was coming, but she said no, you guys go ahead, there’s nothing happening, don’t worry, I’ll be fine. So finally my dad told me to step on the gas.”

They met two other cars going in the wrong direction and Simao honked her horn, yelling for them to back up and head for safety. They could see the ocean as it began piling up and over the seawall. “The ocean was climbing up as it built – it wasn’t like a wave, it was a rush of water coming in all at one time, it got to the seawall and it just climbed up and rushed over it.” At the end of the road, Simao accelerated to turn up on the mountain and as the car jerked, Simao’s mother fell out onto the road.

“I heard my sister bang on the roof of the truck, yelling to me mom fell out! I looked in the back and the wave was coming so fast. I stopped the truck, got out and ran to get my mom. She stood up and she kept telling us to keep going, don’t wait for her. But I got her back into the truck and accelerated again up the hill. The road was full of the school kids that had passed in front of our house, they weren’t even halfway up. I had to honk at them to run faster, I don’t think they knew how quick the water was coming after us.”

At the top of the hill, Simao pulled over and the family looked back at the ocean. They couldn’t see around the corner into the village but the power poles beside them were being pulled towards the direction of the ocean as further down and out of sight, something was tugging on the wires. Something that was consuming their homes. Standing there, Simao remembers a strange sight. That of the wave rebounding and heading back out – towards Upolu in the far off distance. “I saw three ripples in the ocean going back towards Aleipata. Three ripples that built from here in Poloa. And the ripples were full of debris, all this rubbish that was being taken with it. And I realized that was our village. All that stuff going out in the ocean ripples, was our houses and our stuff and our cars and everything.”

It didn’t take long to wipe out Poloa. It is after all, deceptively easy for nature to erase man when she feels like it. Simao came down the mountain road with her father before even half an hour had elapsed. “There was nothing left, not even a wall…” At the end of the village only the elementary school building was standing. Without sides or innards, an empty hulking shell. Months afterwards, one can still find the tattered remnants of primary school readers, scattered on the shore rocks.

One woman was killed by the tsunami in Poloa Village. Perise Sula, who did not want to leave her house when Simao and her family called her to join them. Thanks to past earthquake drills and swift response to the calls to evacuate, there were not more deaths. But there will be no more Poloa village down here where the crashing surf never sleeps. It has been designated a V-zone, unsafe for rebuilding, the tsunami risk too high. Children in yellow and blue pinafores will no longer skip to school along a sun drenched shore.

How did the Masoa family know to react as quickly as they did that morning? “We lived our whole life growing up in Hawaii where there were a lot of trainings done about tsunami. Also, we would have regular evacuation drills at the elementary school, so I guess that’s why we knew what to look for and what we had to do.”

All that's left of the school where Simao worked with the children of Poloa..

Monday, January 3, 2011

A reviewer in Hawaii: Mike Foley

A Review published in Kaleo:Koolauloa News, in Hawaii.
Book review: Pacific Tsunami “Galu Afi” By Mike Foley.
The story of the greatest natural disaster Samoa has ever known, September 2009, 397 pages, by Lani Wendt Young; edited by Hans Joachim Keil
* * * * * * * *
At 6:48 a.m. on September 29, 2009, an 8.3-magnitude earthquake in the ocean floor about 120 miles southeast of Samoa started the nearby tropical islands to shake, walls to crack and buildings to collapse.

"It felt far more consuming than its one-and-a-half minutes," one survivor said.

But the earthquake was just the predecessor to a much more destructive galu lolo or tsunami that within about five minutes would strike the three northern-most islands in Tonga, and 10–15 minutes later parts of the islands of Samoa and neighboring American Samoa with deadly force, claiming almost 200 lives.

One grandmother, remembering stories she heard as a little girl about her father's own boyhood tales of earthquakes and galu lolo, told her daughter and grandchildren to immediately run inland when she felt the shaking. They were saved. Others made similar dashes, but some were caught unprepared in the first surge of the resulting tsunami.

The birds knew, one survivor claimed: "[They] started screeching, it was like a ringing in my ears… I saw them all take off from the trees…but we didn't have any idea"; and a surfer out early that morning later said, "The sea was bubbling as if a 10-foot-plus wave had just detonated on the reef…millions of gallons of water were creating violent waterfalls." He wisely paddled farther out to sea and survived.

"We saw the wave coming like fire[or galu afi in Samoan], so we ran," someone said; but a man in Matautu village added,"It doesn't matter if you're a good runner, you'd get caught. The wave was just too fast."

Some said the wave, starting with the second of four surges, was black; but "the sound of the wave is what most people remember most vividly," Young wrote — "a rushing wind, or like a train, smashing houses like matchsticks."

Some drowned quickly while others caught in the surge swam or struggled to safety, but the murky water was filled with "roofing iron that can cut you in pieces, coral boulders torn from the reef, timber beams that will break all your ribs…and you're in the middle of it."

Many of those caught in the water who survived suffered "deep, dirty lacerations…cuts and bruises…[and] nasty lung infections."

Depending on the topography, the waves came across the beach about 10 feet high in relatively level places, but rose to 26 feet in the "tsunami trap" of American Samoa's Pago Pago harbor and even higher in a few other places. Many climbed trees to escape, including two Mormon missionaries who also helped save a number of young children in their precarious perch. Others scrambled up steep hills to escape.

Some remembered the "ferocity of the wave rather than its height," Young wrote. In parts of Malaela, a village on the southeastern shore of Upolu island facing the earthquake's epicenter, "there were no houses left. Only cement foundations with steel inserts gaping through where block walls had been ripped away, as if by a giant hand wiping a slate clean." Several beachside resorts were particularly devastated, with vacationing tourists counted among the injured and dead.

Lani Wendt Young — under commission from Samoan businessman and Associate Minister for Trade and Commerce Hans Joachim Keil, who has family in Laie — compiled these and many more stories into her compelling Pacific Tsunami "Galu Afi", which she patterned after David McCullough's The Johnstown Flood account of that 1889 disaster to "give the reader a sense of ‘really being there.'"

Keil and Young published the book, her first, on the one-year anniversary of the natural disaster "to ensure that a record is kept of people's tsunami experiences for the benefit of both present and future generations." The Australian Government Aid Program provided printing funds.

Young, who is part-Samoan and Maori, was born and raised in Samoa but graduated from high school in Washington D.C. when her father — Dr. Felix Wendt, currently Director of LDS Humanitarian Aid and Welfare Services for Samoa and Tonga — was there on a diplomatic posting. She attended Georgetown University and graduated with a degree in English literature and Women's Studies and a Diploma in Education from Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand.

A month after starting the book, she wrote: "I have seen children who were saved by parents who held them above the water while they were submerged. I have touched trees that people climbed up to evade the waters… I have listened to mothers weep because they could not save their little ones. I have felt the anger of fathers who could not fight against the tsunami."

In short, she captured much of the human drama of that terrible day without intruding on the sensitive feelings of the surviving victims and their family members.

For example, she told the story of Jared and Netta Schwalger, who also have family in Laie. Then each 29 years old, they had quit their jobs in Apia so they could raise their two-year-old son and one-year-old daughter in a more traditional family-oriented lifestyle with his parents in Malaela, which caught the full-on brunt of the tsunami. Soon after the earthquake, when they realized what the earthquake would bring, they quickly loaded the kids in the family pickup — but it was already too late:

As Netta turned back to the house to warn her mother-in-law, "the last thing I saw was the wave hit the house and everything was broken in pieces." The unyielding surge carried the truck into a swamp about 100 yards inland, coming to a half-submerged rest and pinning Netta's leg. Jared was also hurt but could walk, his father and mother were dead, and "of the children there was no sign."

As Jared first tried to free her, Netta passed out from the pain. "But when I was out, I heard voices. They were laughing and they were playing. It was my children and I wanted to be with them. But then a voice whispered in my ear to wake up, that it wasn't my time yet. But I didn't want to."

Finally, with the help of others, she was among the first survivors to reach the National Hospital in Apia, where a relief team of doctors from Australia and New Zealand eventually saved her leg from amputation. Asking relatives to watch her, Jared quickly returned to Malaela where he spent the next three days looking for the body of his son. The little boy and girl were buried about a week after the tsunami, a day before their grandparents' funeral. Jared then slept on the hospital floor for the next four weeks while his wife began recovering.

In another seaside village Leua Viiga reported the tsunami wave washed her and her youngest child into their house, which then collapsed on top of them. She escaped when the second surge suddenly carried most of the debris away, but her little boy was found dead later that day. Meanwhile, an older son had "grabbed hold of their china cabinet as it swirled past him in the black waters and clambered on top. It would save his life…[though] it should have been destroyed like everything else." In fact, the dishes inside were also intact.

Young wrote that Leua, who spent several weeks in the hospital recovering from a head wound, and her husband are "thankful for tender mercies…[and] have eyes to see miracles": Unlike many others, her child looked somewhat peaceful in death; the china cabinet is where she and her husband stored their Latter-day Saint temple clothing, and a family freezer that floated away was later recovered and worked when it was plugged in again.

And one of Young's favorite stories came from Robert Toelupe of Leone, American Samoa. Toelupe, a retired Navy submariner who had been trained in escaping from dark, confusing water, "kept going back into the tsunami to save people" while looking for his own missing family members.

For example, he first swam and carried one woman to safety, then rescued a boy and his wheelchair-bound father, resuscitated another woman with CPR, and the next day dove repeatedly into a mangrove swamp flooded with foul water to recover the body of a missing girl.

Young wrote that for six weeks after the tsunami, "This little girl kept popping into [Toelupe's] head," disturbing his sleep. Later, the girl's mother gave him "a bundle of papers she had found in a box while cleaning up her tsunami-wracked house…papers that contained vital genealogical information about Toelupe's family tree and their ancestral rights to a block of land he had been fighting for in court for over 10 years." Toelupe and the woman hadn't realized before that they were related, and he's since made good progress on his land case. He's also never seen the little girl again in his dreams.

Young described Toelupe and others as "another kind of hero…[who] in the face of insurmountable obstacles, they still tried desperately to overcome."

But the Navy retiree, she continued, disputes people who called him brave for going back into the tsunami. "I didn't go in because I was brave. I went in because I was afraid. So afraid. Louder than the sound of the waves was the thumping of my heart beating in my chest, and ringing in my ears — that's how scared I was. I don't know how to explain the fear I felt, knowing that my daughter and my grandchild were in danger." They were later found safe.

"I've seen people drowning and just remembering what goes on with a person when they're drowning, that scared me. I felt so scared for my daughter and I felt so scared for everyone in the village," Toelupe continued. "The fear gets to a point where you're not worried about safety. I wasn't prepared to see my children drown, the whole time I was praying I wouldn't see that happen to my daughter."

"Grief and loss are the most cutting of tsunami trauma," Young wrote. For example, Netta Schwalger told her, "We have moved on slowly. It was hard when I realized I had lost my kids. It was hard listening to children's voices, hard seeing babies, mothers holding their babies and it was really hard to get used to that. I see other people with their kids and it's hard, but I have to accept it."

Young also tells of those who worked to exhaustion to help the victims of that day, and the relief efforts of many overseas Samoans and others. "Ask survivors 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," she wrote.

Young stressed that in writing the book she tried to be "religion neutral," but people "continue to comment on the faith and resilience" of all the Samoans and tourists affected by this disaster. For example, a Catholic Church leader in American Samoa "described the book as being a ‘faith filled account' and I agree."

"For [her fellow Latter-day Saint] Church members and non-LDS alike, a common thread with all the survivors was gratitude to God: For sparing their lives, for saving one child (even though two others were killed), for sending them so much help and assistance via generous donors both local and foreign."

Young added that compiling the book also caused her to do a lot of personal soul searching: "Honestly, I would come home from a day of interviewing people and question myself. Could I have been so faithful? So humble? So grateful of my meager blessings if that had been ME who had lost everything?"

* * * * * * *

Pacific Tsunami, which is filled with similar accounts, can be ordered online at for $39.99 (plus shipping) or in the mainland U.S. at www.keilcreations for $35 (includes shipping); in Laie at Cackle Fresh Egg Store, $30, or call Magi Keil at 808-293-5568; and in New Zealand and Australia at It is also available at bookstores and other locations in Samoa and American Samoa.

— By Mike Foley
(photos courtesy of Barry Markowitz and Lani Young)

Read it firsthand and comment at the following address: