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