Lessons learned from the Samoa tsunami

By Paul Harper

Nearly 200 people died in the 2009 Samoan tsunami. Photo / Greg Bowker
Nearly 200 people died in the 2009 Samoan tsunami. Photo / Greg Bowker

The survivors of the Pacific tsunami one year ago are well aware of the power of the sea and are better prepared should another tsunami hit.

On September 29, 2009 (September 30 NZT) two simultaneous earthquakes triggered a tsunami which claimed the lives of around 190 people in Samoa, American Samoa and Tonga.

Samoa Red Cross secretary general Tautala Mauala said there was a heightened awareness of natural disasters across Samoa, which bore the brunt of the casualties.

"While disaster planning was previously simply theoretical, it's now very meaningful to Samoan communities," she said.

"Some communities that remain near the ocean are constructing escape routes up steep cliffs to prevent being trapped by another tsunami. Others are including disaster risk reduction in community plans."

New Zealand's Civil Defence has also learnt lessons from the tragedy.

Public information manager Vince Cholewa said several changes had been made following the tsunami.

"We had a good hard look at how we can keep the public better informed after Samoa," Mr Cholewa said.

Civil Defence now endeavours to send hourly updates to keep the public more informed, as well as give more information to the media.

"The warning or advisory that is sent to the councils and response agencies didn't go automatically to the media before," Mr Cholewa said. "The media play a very important role."

Other changes see the addition of a public information manager - who works with the media - and a web master to the National Crisis Management Centre which meets in Wellington following a warning from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre in Hawaii.

The webmaster will update the Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management website, which then automatically updates RSS feeds and the ministry's Twitter feed.

"Anyone can sign up and follow both of those," Mr Cholewa said. "We don't promote Twitter for finding about the information though - if you try to pump out text the network can get clogged."

While New Zealanders will be well informed if a tsunami is caused elsewhere in the pacific, one triggered off the coast of New Zealand would be very different as no warning could be issued quick enough, Mr Cholewa said.

"If you are on the coast people need to be aware of natural warnings."

"If an earthquake hits that makes it hard to walk, or is long and continuous, or if the water is making unusual noises or is moving strangely, get to higher ground and don't go back until you're told by officials."

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