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..

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