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.

Kim