Tuesday, August 30, 2011

“The best laid plans of mice and men….

Gang aft agley” (Robert Burns To a mouse, 1785). Or in other words, sometimes you need to re-visit your original plans and come up with plan B, C, or D. Luckily we have many women on the team as well as men (and no mice) so when things go “agley” the outcome is not as definite as Burns would suggest.

After a highly successful fortnight in Samoa we had some news which resulted in a re-shuffle of our village consultation schedule. More on this later; first a recap of the consultation in Mutiatele, Malaela and Poutasi villages. We spent three days in each village; the programme of consultation has been explained by Michele in a previous post. In Poutasi, as in Mutiatele and Malaela we again got to showcase our dancing skills. Luckily for the villagers we had more to offer than amateur dance steps, the draft evacuation zone maps, signs, and information boards were very well received. The level of interest in tsunami science, as well evacuation planning, was again very high.

We had tweaked the facilitation process a little, based on Vaitoa’s expertise in the community consultation process. For Poutasi we took a more structured approach to discussion of the signs and information board drafts, with resources discussed in the order they would be encountered from the coast (you are in a tsunami evacuation zone)to furthest inland (you have reached the safe location). All the facilitators have been doing a fantastic job, but there are always ways you can improve delivery of your information and make understanding and knowledge sharing easier, so we were very happy with the amendments Vaitoa made following the visit to Mutiatele and Malaela.

The importance of consulting with a range of villages has been highlighted already, not only are the villages we have worked with so far topographically different, there is also quite a different feeling in terms of gravitas, the degree of emotional recovery, the number of high chiefs (more in Poutasi) and the resources in the villages, Mutiatele and Malaela have a some small stores, two churches and a primary school, Poutasi has a hospital, high school, preschool, police station, two churches, large village hall, and some small stores. The discussion in Mutiatele and Malaela felt somewhat more light-hearted, there was recognition that tsunami planning is a serious business and of prime importance to the village people; they were very grateful for the work we and the Samoan government are doing. In Poutasi the feeling was more subdued; the same recognition of the importance of planning was present, but there was a more serious feel to the proceedings. Our impression was that the emotions that arise when discussing tsunami, were closer to the surface in Poutasi. It is humbling to be in the villages and feel at the same time the grief for those lost and the joy of village life. Again we were catered for magnificently, and I discovered that my passion for Koko Samoa (locally grown cocoa with no bitterness and a rich, strong flavour) was undiminished.

Joe Annandale, a local resort owner and high chief in Poutasi has been thinking a lot about tsunami evacuation planning since 2009. He was a great help during our visit, in terms of organising the walkthrough/drive-through of evacuation routes (very well attended), and ensuring tsunami planning remains high on the village agenda. A big thank you is due to Joe for all of his support of the project and the team. Again we included a school visit in our trip, this was very well-received and the level of understanding of tsunami science among the high school students was very impressive. We left Poutasi with a great set of maps for evacuation routes and sign placement and some regret to be heading back to the big smoke of Apia.

Unfortunately while we were in Poutasi we did get the news that we had a cancellation from Faleu village, the next consultation location. A short-notice change to the dates of the nationwide Teuila festival now created clashes with our consultation dates. This festival is the big annual event of Samoa, and village life is focused on training for long boat races and festival planning.

Time for plan B. We considered that the visit to Satupaitea (the last village on the schedule) was also at risk so we made the call to return to NZ for two weeks and come back to Samoa after the festival was over, and meet with our last two pilot villages then. This plan was agreed to by all parties.

So we missed the snow and came back to a relatively warm New Zealand. I am now just getting the final preparations together for our next two consultations. Brenda Rosser will be travelling with me on her first visit to Samoa and we are both very excited to be going to Faleu Village on tiny Manono Island (famous in Samoa for its wildlife) and then directly to Satupaitea in Savai’i.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Fa'a Samoa

The GNS team are at Lalomanu over the weekend and enjoying a small break after our first village consultation of the project at Mutiatele and Malaela on the south-east coast. For Graham and Kim it was their first experience of Samoan village consultation and Samoan village ceremony and protocol (the Samoan way= fa’a Samoa). The villagers were very welcoming and pleased to see us all. The consultation kicked off with a welcome and an ava ceremony with the matai, followed by a huge morning tea (so much food!) and then an overview of the project for everyone given by Vaitoa Toelupe from the Disaster Management Office (DMO). This outlined the reasons for the project, and agreed the expectations from the 3 day visit for both the DMO and the village. More food followed (lunch this time) which included traditional Samoan delicacies like taro leaves in coconut cream (Graham’s favourite), Samoan chicken, marinated octopus, fish, taro, breadfruit, Samoan coca (hot cocoa) and fresh coconut juice. I can see keeping the weight down on this visit will be a problem!

After lunch, the real work started with the villagers breaking into three groups (matai (chiefs), women and male youth to discuss the signs – the language on them and where they should be located, and the evacuation zone maps. We three split up at this point, Kim going with the women, Graham the youth and myself (Michele) with the matai. Our role was to support the Samoan facilitators who we’d given a training session to earlier in the week, mainly to be there to answer any questions and to give the facilitators confidence if they needed it. One of the satisfying parts of the project already has been seeing how the facilitators from a variety of agencies have already picked up the project and run with it – they were enthusiastic and very well prepared for their role, giving us confidence that after the pilot the DMO has enough capacity to help continue the programme in other villages.

Day 2 saw the groups breaking up again (after morning tea and a prayer) to complete their discussion before all returning to the main fale to give presentations to everyone on what they came up with. There was a lot of laughter with every group finishing off with a song and a dance. The groups had identified slightly different issues but there was quite a lot of agreement. The main recommendations included having two zones instead of three (red and orange), some changes to the words on the signs, including adding some english to the information boards and maybe the addition of a lava lava to the figure on the signs to give them a Samoan flavour! The groups had each drafted up evacuation routes, with the location of directional signs and assembly areas marked. Everyone then walked the evacuation routes checking sign locations and ‘safe’ assembly areas. We also took the opportunity to talk to the school children, who all came together in a special session to hear about the project and what the rest of the village had been up to. Several of the youth expressed an interest in learning more about the technical details and tsunami science and a special session was also set up for them. Visuals worked the best here, with good old fashioned flip charts and hand-drawn diagrams being the order of the day.

On the last day after an ava ceremony and morning tea Vaitoa presented a summary of the village recommendations and final map for agreement. This was followed by a farewell which included more dancing (by us this time!!) and an exchange of gifts. Graham (aka “John Key” as nicknamed by the high chief) excelled in his dancing and was ‘claimed’ by several of the older village women which created a lot of laughter. Neither Kim nor I were quick enough! It was a great privilege to be involved in the village in this way. Sometimes it’s difficult to know when to speak out or what’s appropriate but the warmth of the welcome and the support gave us the confidence to speak up. While we had orators to speak on our behalf the high chief mentioned to me that my efforts to speak as the palagi matai were very much appreciated and was something that occurred only rarely by visiting palagi. Farewell Mutiatele, Malaelu and the island of Namua (where we stayed). When we next visit in November for the simulation it’ll be like visiting old friends.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Winter in Samoa

Is nothing like winter in Wellington! The team are back in Samoa for the village consultation stage of this year-long project. To recap: Funded by NZ Aid Programme, GNS Science and the Samoa Disaster Management Office (DMO) have partnered to produce tsunami evacuation zone maps for all of Samoa, and pilot the creation of community maps in four villages. The project (as far as GNS is involved) will conclude with an evacuation drill later this year. The roll-out of community maps for the rest of Samoa will be undertaken using in-country expertise in mapping and community consultation at the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment in Samoa, and other, associated ministries. It feels a little odd to be here without Nora, but she is now at home with baby Giles and we are continuing her great work in establishing the project.

Stages of the project completed so far include the Inception Visit (the subject of previous blogs), near and distant tsunami source modelling for Samoa, data acquisition to assist modelling, and inundation and evacuation zone mapping. Much of the technical work was undertaken at GNS Science in New Zealand. We now have draft evacuation zone maps for Samoa similar to those used by Wellington and Northland communities in NZ. These need local input to be relevant and meaningful.

Community consultation will include discussion with village populations and then more detailed consultation in three groups: men, women and youth. The purpose of the consultation is to allow locals to draw their own evacuation routes on maps and identify the best location for safe evacuation destination and signage. We also discuss how the tsunami maps align with previous hazard maps developed for villages, how they integrate with existing disaster management arrangements including official warnings, and very importantly the indicators and actions applicable to natural warnings (strong or prolonged shaking, unusual ocean behaviour or sounds etc).

So we have a busy month ahead, we spend three days in each village with small breaks in between to write up notes and re-charge our batteries. All the consultations will be in Samoan, and we travel as part of a team of trained facilitators from Samoan government agencies lead by Vaitoa Toelupe of the DMO. The GNS members are there to provide technical support to facilitators as villagers discuss and customise the maps and undertake village walk-throughs of evacuation routes and safe locations. Most editing will be in the form of drawing on routes, safe locations and important landmarks such as churches and schools.

As part of the team Michele, Graham and I will travel to Mutiatele and Malaela on the southern part of the east coast of Upolu, then to the village of Poutasi in the middle of Upolu’s south coast. Graham and Michele will then head back to New Zealand and I will be joined by Brenda Rosser from the GNS business development team but also a GIS mapping aficionado, with a keen interest in working with our partners in the Pacific. Brenda and I will join teams heading to Faleu on Manono Island (the small, inhabited island between Upolu and Savai’i. The final village consultation is in Satupaitea district on Savai’i and strictly speaking covers four villages. All of the pilot areas were severely impacted by the 2009 tsunami, and have a long history of community hazard infrastructure planning with the DMO.

So it’s a warm, busy and exciting month ahead for me. I know I’ll get a bit homesick for my family and cold, windy Wellington but the welcome, the weather and excitement of being involved in such a valuable and locally supported project will really help (not to mention the odd cold Vailima at the end of the day).

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Update: I wrote this before we got on the plane in Samoa on Feb 21st (Feb 22nd in NZ). When we landed at 4.30pm NZ time we heard about the ChCh earthquake. Two of the team were raised in ChCh and were concerned for our families. Dealing with the logistical aftermath of this event took precedence (no family members injured thankfully but many other arrangements to take care of) but we are back on deck now so I feel able to finally post this ….…

It’s with mixed emotions I write on our final morning in Samoa. It will be good to be back at home in Wellington tonight, but our time has gone so quickly and our reception so welcoming it would be easy to stay for another week (or two…).

On Friday morning we travelled south on the Cross Island Road from Apia, collecting our friend Teresa on route – it’s great to have a local to travel with, they know the spots to visit and just as importantly, to eat. The rain was still falling as we drove so views to the south coast were restricted; when we arrived it was overcast with the promise of more showers to come. We were now about to travel through the villages most affected by the 2009 tsunami.

Our first stop was at Sinalei resort, a top of the range, luxurious complex in the middle of the south coast. During the tsunami the resort safely evacuated all 38 of its guests and all staff due to extensive pre-planning, training and exercises, and a purpose built locally-activated alarm system. Sose Annandale, the Sinalei Manager shared her story of that day with us. A veteran of the Loma Prieta earthquake in San Francisco, Sose attended a presentation in 2008 by Filomena of the Disaster Management Office where the threat to Samoa from tsunami was discussed. Since that time, Sose has created a comprehensive plan for Sinalei which worked well on the day of the tsunami. The Sinalei story is fascinating as well as emotional and we have agreed it deserves a more in-depth telling. We will write this up as larger report with Sose’s input, in the hope it will prove valuable to others in the tourism industry worldwide as well as the emergency management planners they work with.

At Lupe (our lunch cafĂ© on Friday) and at Taufua Fales, the white sand paradise where we stayed the weekend, locals also were quick to mention the holidaying New Zealanders who after the initial evacuation, returned in the next few days to help with the clean up and search. I felt very proud of my fellow kiwis. We walked the nearly complete new walking track for evacuation, and Graham spent some time ground-truthing elevation data that will be used in modelling. But…. we also had a wonderful time eating, and relaxing with Teresa, her husband Dave and their children. The reef is slowly rejuvenating and I have now discovered that snorkelling is addictive.

It is surprising how matter of fact those who have been through the tsunami can be when describing the events of September 29, 2009. Listening to first hand accounts from tsunami survivors at Sinalei I found to be an emotional experience, although it seemed inappropriate to convey this while the relater of the experience was maintaining their composure. I experienced this feeling again at the Lupe restaurant where we lunched on Teresa’s recommendation. When he heard why we were in Samoa, our waiter described how he had ferried a full van load of people up the hill after feeling the earthquake and hearing the Sinalei alarm sounding further down the beach. He then returned to the beachfront and ferried another van load of people up the hill. His following days as a Red Cross volunteer, clearing debris and searching for bodies was described by him in a straightforward everyday manner although he was clearly affected powerfully by the response and recovery. It’s pretty humbling to speak to people who have shown such courage, but somewhat comforting at the same time to witness the resilience of those who have come through the experience. (Update: similar stories have now emerged from Christchurch and even though they came through physically unscathed, members of my family described in detail the minutes after the quake, walking through the outskirts of a devastated CBD, and the impact of seeing those in shock “wandering dazed, like zombies”, the chaos of liquefaction, cracked roads and crumbling buildings that was their working neighbourhood. Mum said it was good to talk about it).

The next phase in the Samoa evacuation project happens here in New Zealand, where our tsunami modellers develop source models, wave models and inundation zones. This will take some time so the Social Science blog will most likely have a new flavour next post.


Thursday, February 17, 2011

Tube Tales

Throughout our visit so far we have daily attended at least three meetings in separate locations throughout Apia. A common thread has woven through all visits. At the end of each meeting, when we are on the verge of heading to our next destination someone will ask “Have you got the tube?” The tube contains maps, large scale examples of New Zealand tsunami evacuation resources, and larger-than-A4 handouts. The tube accompanies us on each visit and on most occasions has been called upon to produce a visual prompt or take-home information sheet.

Graham is “the keeper of the tube” and so far has performed his task admirably. The problem is, as he aptly describes, for most people in their everyday lives a tube is not common baggage – we are used to carrying backpacks, handbags and the like but not many people carry a tube daily. This out of the ordinary responsibility increases the risk of tube abandonment. As a Wellington resident, I have also experienced a similar dilemma with the Pacific Pearl courtesy umbrella. It has already spent a lonely half hour in the SamoaTel foyer while I forgot its very existence. Umbrellas are not standard baggage in Wellington due to the frequent “refreshing breezes” that prevail, so guardianship of the umbrella is proving just as challenging as 'tube duty'.

Today the formal meeting of the Disaster Advisory Committee (DAC) was held, during which our project was presented to CEOs and high level officials from many agencies who meet regularly to determine the strategic direction for disaster planning in Samoa. Nora and Graham from our team presented an overview of the Samoa evacuation zone project and similar work in New Zealand. This was followed by a brief explanation from Filomena Nelson of the Disaster Management Office outlining the recommendations her team had made with regards to pilot villages, timelines, consultation process and exercising and evaluation. We had already met some members of the committee in less formal meetings to discuss the project but an official endorsement from the DAC was always the desired outcome of the Inception Visit. After some brief discussion and declarations of support from several committee members, the meeting adjourned having agreed that the project was worthy and being conducted appropriately and agreement was also reached with the recommendations put forward by the DMO.

Wrap-up meetings are happening this afternoon and then the team will make our way across Upolu to the south coast. We will be based in Lalomanu, but visit other tsunami affected (and recovered/recovering) areas and on a more recreational note I will have my first ever attempt at snorkelling. I am a bit of a wildlife spotting enthusiast and so far have been limited to birds (rare) and lizards (plentiful) in the surrounds of Apia so the chance to check out the sea life is very exciting.

We have had nothing but assistance and support from all the people we have worked with here in Apia. Its great to be heading to the heartland and beautiful beaches, but Apia has treated us well and I look forward to returning during later stages of the project.

Note: the umbrella is now travelling with Willy, our taxi van driver, around Apia – thank goodness I am not in charge of the precious tube!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Wilma was (near) here

We arrived to a slightly cooler than expected Faleolo airport – the rain was still falling and it freshened the air and took the edge off the heat. After a swift transit through security we were met by our friendly shuttle team for the hour-long drive into Apia.

The last two days have seen some very heavy rain; surface flooding was common along the coastal road, which is still rutted and lumpy from Cyclone Wilma’s nearby passing a couple of weeks ago. Road maintenance in a tropical climate is clearly a tricky process, but we arrived at the Pacific Pearl in comfort despite the shaky drive. What can I say about the Pacific Pearl Hotel? Graham by luck of the draw has the biggest and best room (the former bachelor pad of a previous owner), but the rest of us have no reason to complain. Sisters Adoniah and Odessa are consummate hosts. I t quickly becomes clear why Michele stays here whenever she works in Samoa. Adoniah is the font of all important knowledge on taxi prices, rental cars, restaurants, local history and much more. All preparations for transport, eating and even after work beer run like clockwork. And the coffee is excellent. Why did I think I needed to lug my coffee and brewing pot across the Pacific?

Today we began the inception visit by meeting with representatives from the Samoa Disaster Management Office (DMO), NZ Aid Programme, the NZ High Commission and the Samoa Maps and Survey department. This is very much a partnership project so we will be guided by local knowledge as we prepare the more in-depth plan of this week’s meetings and activities, including determining the pilot villages for the project and other details such as which map formats are most appropriate for village consultation. It’s the first step but a critical one in ensuring the evacuation planning succeeds for all involved. Without drilling down into too much detail, the inception visit has begun well. Local support and interest is high. We have great accommodation, some excellent contacts and a full and (if expectations are met) highly productive week ahead. We are building on years of work already undertaken by the DMO here in public education and village consultation. Our work must integrate to succeed.

Those of us who have not worked in Samoan villages before are reminded that September 2009 was not that long ago and for many people in professional roles and the villages our work will evoke strong and sometimes very painful memories, particularly when we come to exercising the evacuation plans. This is a project I’m proud to be part of, but in all honesty, it’s a little emotionally daunting too.

In other news…Graham is now, as I became on a previous visit to Samoa, a Vailima convert. Those who know me well know I am a beer drinker but not a lager fan. Vailima has changed all that nonsense, a German-influenced, truly Samoan beer, Vailima is the perfect end to a work day in beautiful, warm, Samoa. We finish the day with good food and a cool drink in our bellies and anticipation of tomorrow’s work.

Manuia (Cheers)

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Goodbye Wellington – Talofa Samoa!

After a typically early end to summer in Wellington, Team GNS Science (Nora, Michele, Graham and yours truly) is eagerly looking forward to beginning work in the tropical climes of Samoa. On February 14th we catch a jet plane to Apia for a week’s work to officially begin a project that in the big scheme of things has been in development for several years and is now kicking off.

Samoa has a small but very active team in their Disaster Management Office (DMO). For many years they have been working with communities to raise awareness and understanding of hazards and risks in Samoa, including developing education programmes and warning systems for tsunami. The September 2009 Galu Afi (tsunami: literal translation “fire wave”) that impacted Samoa, American Samoa and Tonga gave new impetus to prioritising and accelerating the work already undertaken, and that is how GNS Science became involved. Our project sits alongside existing local work and is funded by the New Zealand Aid Programme (a big thank you to those folk!). In a nutshell, we are developing an end-to-end tsunami evacuation plan for Samoa.

What’s an end-to-end project then? We’re lucky at GNS Science to have a mix of scientists from a wide range of backgrounds – this means the project includes the physical science aspects of tsunami wave generation and behaviour as well as conducting more detailed terrain mapping. We then include the social science aspects of emergency planning, public understanding and awareness of hazards, how people respond to and understand warnings, and what factors are important for public education and when planning evacuation routes.

We’ll be identifying and quantifying potential tsunami sources from both near and far, mapping wave inundation and evacuation zones; integrating planning with existing, new and natural warning systems (noises, “odd wave behaviour” strong shaking) and developing community evacuation plans with escape routes and safe locations. When signage is up and planning is complete we test the evacuation routes with the locals in a simulated evacuation. It’s a big project and given it involves tsunami evacuation planning for a whole country it’s a first for us in many ways. In saying that, Michele has a wealth of experience in other disaster management 'all of Samoa' projects and most of us have been involved in similar tsunami evaucation projects with New Zealand communities. However, this is another scale altogether and potentially more of a cultural challenge as well, given none of our team speaks Samoan above basic greetings and handy words. The project is designed so that local participation from Samoan government level down to village level occurs at every stage. Luckily, we have bilingual support within Samoa from the Disaster Management Office and others.

We’ll be updating this blog throughout the project with project progress, thoughts and impressions of Samoa, and team news. Comments and questions most welcome.

Tofa soifua for now