Samoa post-tsunami field reconnaissance survey - Day 6

Posted on October 29 2009

A very full day of interviews and meetings. It rained heavily in the night – knocked out power and interrupted internet service for awhile. The rains pose a health risk. Both dengue fever and Leptisporis are on the rise because of the debris has created many pooling places for stagnant water. We were told yesterday of a man who was evacuated off island with swine flu, leptospirosis and dengue all at once. We spent the morning at the home of the park anthropologist we interviewed yesterday. Her home was right on the edge of the inundation zone and her pig sty was in it. She has a sow with 6 piglets and when she returned to her home after the tsunami, they had all survived but the sow had a high water dirt mark on it’s neck. All of the piglets must have swum to survive. Her village is Leone where 11 people died – it was the single hardest hit in terms of human loss. The water heights weren’t as high in Leone and the percent of damaged structures wasn’t as great as in the nearby communities of Paloa (1 death) or Amenave (no deaths) where almost all structures were erased. The difference in the casualty rate is probably mainly related to the population of the village – Leone is much larger, but tomorrow we will visit Amenave and Paloa and may have more to add to the story. A number of larger buildings appeared to have little damage and we heard several stories of people surviving on the second floors. We spent some time looking at the pattern of damage in Leone. It was irregular – flattened buildings next to ones that appeared substantially undamaged. Impact appears to have played a major role . Vehicles, telephone boles, trees, boats and large containers were transported tens of meters and the size and character of impact had a major role in the severity of damage. In our cursory look, we saw little evidence of scour – just one location in central Leone where the scour was noticeable.

We met with Don Vargo of the American Samoa Community College and several colleagues. Don and his research assistants have helped a number of visiting scientific teams and their translation help has been essential to getting accurate accounts from people who only speak Samoan. We had a lively discussion about what could be done to improve education efforts and institutionalize the lessons of this event. A top priority is a good tsunami hazards map for the territory. While there are a number of generic tsunami hazard zones posted, there is no information on how high or far people need to go. Over evacuation was common on September 29. With credible hazard zone maps it would be possible to create walking evacuation routes and evacuation areas. With evacuation routes, village evacuation drills could be held – maybe a good goal is the one year anniversary of the tsunami.

Samoa post-tsunami field reconnaissance survey - Day 5

Posted on October 27 2009

Note – no internet for the past day so this is a day late.

I finally arrived in American Samoa last night – after a five hour flight where I was fortuitously seated next to a large Samoan gentleman who turned out to be the matai (chief) of the village of Leone on the western end of the island. Leone was one of the areas hardest hit by the tsunami – 11 of the 34 deaths attributed to the tsunami were in his village. He was very gracious and we had plenty of time for a long conversation about what happened in his village. He had tried to push tsunami awareness after the 2004 Indian Ocean event, but many people were apathetic. On Sept 29 many people evacuated on feeling the ground shake – there had been a number of education efforts over the past year – but many people used their vehicle and some got stuck in traffic. For a number of the victims, being very large was a liability. Some people were just too big to be able to quickly walk to higher ground.

Couldn’t see much on the drive to Tisa’s Barefoot Bar where we are staying. The amount of cleanup is impressive. Some damaged boats and buildings at the back of Pago Pago harbor but most of the coast looked surprisingly ok. Tisa’s is on a beautiful little pocket beach with four fale (sleeping shacks) right on the beach. There was some flooding here during the tsunami but very little damage. I do plan to evacuate if a strong earthquakes hits in the night. Mosquito screens make our beds look regal. So far the trade winds have been pretty strong and I haven’t noticed many insects.’

First real glance at the place was around 5 AM with day dawning. American Samoa doesn’t have the big vast beaches of Hawaii, but the small beaches have pristine white sand, no people, no trash, and the Manau Island’s to the east are supposed to be great for diving and snorkeling. It’s a surprise to me that there little tourism here – to me this is a hands down winner over Waikiki. Very full day of meetings with officials from a variety of agencies to introduce ourselves, find out what was happening with their organizations and how we could collaborate with their efforts. First to FEMA who holds planning meetings every Monday, Wed. and Friday morning. We didn’t have any official introduction, just the letters Marjory had provided us with our EERI affiliation (thanks Marjorie – they really helped). We ended up going right to the top meeting with the Federal Coordinating Officer in charge – who was surprisingly interested, genuine and supportive of what we were trying to do. Before going on this trip we had been warned that the response phase was still in full swing and to steer clear of all government agencies involved with response. The actual situation is quite different. Response was over and the recovery problems were looming large – top on the list debris removal and processing and health issues related to water supplies contaminated by damaged cess pools. Debris is a problem – tsunami debris is very dirty, generally a mix of sand, vegetation, metal and building materials. Fortunately they have adequate space for debris and the landfill and scrap metal yards are in close proximity. They try to do primary sorting of metal/no metal on site so that the debris only needs to be handled once. The traditional way of dealing with woody debris and vegetation is to burn. But much of the wood is pressure treated and the burning creates additional environmental issues.

One of the group we met with was Joe Tolard, head of the Department of Homeland Securities Geospatial Analys group – he’s a whiz at GIS and space-based imaging and an alum of HSU’s international studies option in Environmental Systems masters program (he said hi to Steve Steinberg). He gave us a great number of maps and before/after space based images.

Met with the National Park folks. The park lands were barely impacted by the tsunami but park headquarters and visitor center is at the head of Pago Pago harbor where some of the highest water levels were observed. The building was destroyed along with many archeological artifacts, and all the computer data. Fortunately some of the computer data had been backed up and they were able to retrieve some data off retrieved C-drives, but some was lost. Another lesson – if its important, keep backup computer data in different locations. We spent a long time talking with the park archeologist who experienced the peak of the tsunami in Pango Plaza, one of the hardest hit areas. She is also from Leone and three of the victims were her sister-in-law and two nieces and a sister is currently in intensive care in Hawaii.

We met with territory officials in the afternoon and reconnected with the three engineers in our group. A lot of discussion on how to tackle some of the main recovery issues. Land use planning, building design requirements and cess pool – sewage treatment issues are at the top of the list. The planning team will need to present a recovery plan with recommendations soon to the territorial government and there are many touchy issues. Land ownership is complex and traditional in Samoa villages. Sewage treatment in low-lying areas is very difficult. No detailed tsunami hazard assessment has been completed here and 60 percent of residents are below the poverty line.

Final meeting of the day was with two FEMA disaster response workers. One was Jeanne Johnston, a 1946 tsunami survivor who has worked with Walt Dudley on collecting tsunami survivor stories for years and also led the State of Hawaii’s tsunami program for civil defense for a few years. She sees the lack of a full hazard assessment for Samoa as a major problem and has been surprised that few NTHMP resources have been spent here outside of some TsunamiReady funding.

Samoa post-tsunami field reconnaissance survey - Day 4

Posted on October 25 2009

I’m finally under way again. Four members of our group are waiting in the Honolulu airport for the flight to Pago Pago (pronounced Pango Pango). Due to family emergencies and state bureaucracies our team has been whittled down to 6 – three engineers, an environmental scientist an anthropologist and me. The flight is boarding – hope to find a wifi hotspot tomorrow to update this.

Samoa post-tsunami field reconnaissance survey - Day 3

Posted on October 24 2009

The layover in Honolulu has had some positive outcomes. I was able to visit with Chip McCreery, the geophysicist in charge of PTWC and Brian Yanagi of ITIC. I first met Chip in 1997 when I was in Hawaii working on the strategic plan for the National Tsunami Hazard Mitigation Program (NTHMP). He was the director of ITIC at that time – it was a tiny office, just Chip and a part time staff person. Since then Chip moved to PTWC, the 2004 tsunami happened and both PTWC and ITIC have expanded. I had an informal discussion with Chip about what worked and what didn’t work quite so well during the Samoa tsunami alerts. A fortuitous factor was that Vasily Titov, NOAA’s top tsunami modeler and other members of the NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory’s modeling program happened to be at PTWC doing a training on how to run the new SIFT (Short-term Inundation Forecasting for Tsunamis) tsunami forecasting tool. Note – there are a lot of acronyms in the tsunami world. So they were able to assist in both the forecasts and in the discussions as the event ran its course. This was the first time SIFT was used in a fully operational manner at both tsunami warning centers. While it’s a great tool – it could use a little refining to make it easier to use in an operational sense. Unlike the other forecast tools, its output doesn’t automatically insert into messaging, and folks spent a lot of time writing things down on scraps of paper to later insert into messages. SIFT also creates simulations at a number of sites, producing a number of different screens and window all overlain on the same computer, making it sometimes hard to find the screen you want. But it’s a huge step forward and these are minor bugs that shouldn’t be too difficult to work out. When I first started working on tsunami issues, the idea of using modeling as a forecast tool dueing an actual event was unheard of. One other lesson had to do with the importance of a good PR person. Delores Clark, NOAA’s long term expert Public Affairs person, was on another assignment during the tsunami event and her replacement wasn’t nearly as skilled at managing the media, inadvertently letting them all into the operations core of PTWC – not a good idea have cameras and news folks intermixed with the forecasters trying to work the event. This is an important lesson – make sure the rules for back up public relations people are well spelled out.

I’ve known Brian Yanagi for a long time too. He was the State of Hawaii emergency services representative to the NTHMP from 1996 until 2005, lasting about 2 years longer as an NTHMP rep than I did. After the 2004 tsunami ITIC was able to expand and Brian joined ITIC director Laura Kong in international tsunami trainings and outreach efforts. I missed Laura on this trip – she is in Vanuatu at the moment. Brian took me to a viewing a the movie “The Third Wave”, a documentary about a volunteer relief effort in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka. This was the only showing at the Hawaiian International Film festival. It is the closest thing I’ve ever seen to putting you into the post tsunami aftermath and the volunteers who cobble together a long term relief-recovery program are inspiring. More about the movie Here.

Samoa post-tsunami field reconnaissance survey - Day 2

Posted on October 23 2009

Courtesy of United Airlines I’ve had to switch to plan B. Mechanical problems delayed the San Francisco – Honolulu departure for 3.5 hours, so I missed the Pago Pago flight. Unfortunately, the Pago Pago American Samoa flights are only on Thursdays and Sundays so I’m stranded in Honolulu for three days. It won’t be a complete waste – it gives me the chance to meet with folks at the International Tsunami Information Center (ITIC) who compile information on all tsunamis and also go to the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC) and find out more about how the recent spate of warnings have gone from their perspective.

The most interesting piece of information I’ve gotten in the past day is an account from a family who were in a boat in Pago Pago harbor during the tsunami – courtesy of HSU alum Orion George. The most jarring part of this account to me is the failure to adequately educate people about what to do when they feel a strong earthquake near the coast. These folks should have immediately evacuated as soon as the shaking diminished enough for them to move. Instead they took the time to go on the internet! They were very fortunate – if the tsunami had been larger, they would not have survived.

“This morning (six hrs ago) we were shaken awake by an earthquake which seemed to have no end! We were aboard Gallivanter and tied side-to a big concrete dock in the heart of Pago Pago, American Samoa. And after living up & down the California coast, I knew this was no minor tremor.

After the rude awakening, Cath & I walked across the dock and chatted with a few of our fellow sailors, one of whom said that he’s just done a Google search on “recent earthquakes” and said that it measured-in at 8.1 and the epicenter was only 120 miles distant.

We returned to Gallivanter and I turned on our laptop and searched the same website. Sure enough there it was… “8.1 earthquake – American Samoa – 20 minutes ago”. I clicked on the “Show Map” option and noticed the epicenter was located south west of Pago Pago… which is located on the southern side of the island.

Just as I was considering the ramifications of that little fact… all hell started breaking loose! Our boat was on the move! My first reaction was to start the engine and dash up on deck to see what was going on. I witnessed the water around us was rapidly dropping! Rapidly! In a blink of an eye, we were on the bottom and the boat was falling away from the dock! Three of our big dock lines popped and we fell right over into the mud – the entire basin we had been floating in only moments ago had completely drained! People were screaming!

Next – the water came flooding back in at an even more alarming rate and the next thing I knew we were floating directly above the dock! Over the concrete slab and drifting toward a young lady we knew (from another boat) who was desperately hugging a power pole and up to her chin in swirling water! I told Cath to cut the two remaining dock lines with our serrated bread knife and to be quick about it!

Right as I put the boat into gear, we were somehow washed back off the dock and into the basin as I advance to full throttle and we accelerated through a floating debris field of floating docks, fuel drums, sinking boats, a shipping container and a barnicle encrusted wreck all of which were spinning in the torrent of rapidly dropping sea level. It was absolute mayhem! As we steered out toward the deep water in the center of the harbor I looked over my shouder and saw what appeared to be a waterfall pouring off the dock and shore beyond. Not one of the dozen vessels remained at the dock. All were underway in a matter of seconds… with or without crews aboard.

We motored around in the middle of the harbor watching the waves of floods & ebbs while wondering about after-shocks and our fellow cruising sailors. As we passed one of our neighbors she shouted to us that her husband had been washed off the dock as they were trying to get away. She was alone and seriously concerned. Other boats broke free from their moorings and anchors in the initial seismic waves and many were driven ashore, or driven under by loose tuna boats.

After about three hours, we felt it was finally safe enough to return to the dock. All we had were lengths of old line and we were short a couple fenders. We were the first to go in and we started un-tangling lines and helping others get back along side the concrete dock. All of the store-fronts along the water are destroyed, roving mobs of kids can be seen looting, the fence around the dock is gone, every boat on stands in a nearby boatyard were washed away. Big fishing boats are now in parking lots across the street. Absolute destruction is seen everywhere along the shore.

Phones and power are down but we got back online right away and I immediately went back to the recent earthquakes website to see if things have been calming down in the center of the earth. A number of aftershocks as strong as 6.0 have been recorded over the past few hours – but thankfully no more wave action has been noticed. We’ve been making Skype calls to our families and letting others use the computer as well to phone home.

Online news reports say that the earthquake lasted three minutes and the highest flood rose 25 ft above normal! There are 20 confirmed deaths… including our neighbor who was swept off the dock. Most fatalities occured in and around the harbor where we live. Boats are battered and nerves are fried. One friend wound-up on his boat nearly 1000 feet away from the water after breaking from his anchor and sailing right down Main St. taking power & telephone wires down with his mast! Some people lost everything… including their lives. We came through remarkably well with only minor dammage sustained to our toe rail when the dock lines parted and to our fender basket which was the only point of contact with that drifting wreck. I never felt any jarring loads while we were hurtling around above & below the concrete dock, so I believe our hull, keel & rudder suffered no dammage from the wildest boat ride I’ve ever been on. “

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