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

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