Sia Figiel: Tsunami's impact on island life

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Sia Figiel writes from American Samoa about the impact of the tsunami on her community.

We woke up this morning to the house shaking.

Earthquakes in this part of the world usually shake for a minute or two. But this morning the house kept shaking for a clear five minutes.

The boys and I ran outside to the clearing before our house where our neighbors had gathered. Then just as quickly as it had appeared, everything became quiet. We returned to the house. Packed everyone up and drove them to school. I dropped the kids at the gate and was about to head off to work when I turned on the radio. The DJ was talking about cars in the parking lot of Pago Plaza floating like toys and that there was a second and third wave to hit in less than an hour's time.

Instinctively, I took a 180 back to the school. I just wanted to get to my children. The road back to the school was packed with traffic. Frantic parents calling out their children's names. Teachers told us to remain calm.

Mr. Moi the principal was encouraging everyone to do the same. And that we could pick up our kids and told us that the children had been evacuated to the highest point in the school.

Before I got to the point, I heard hymns. Children singing while others praying and crying.

It was quite a sight. I saw one of my sons and told him to go look for his siblings...while I did the same. After about 15 mins he ran to me and said everyone was at the car. I quickly ran back to the car.

My 10 year old son was in tears. "Mom, I don't wanna die," was how he greeted me.

The only thought in my mind was to drive to the highest point of the island...up to Aoloau village. The drive up was difficult. It seemed the entire island was heading up to Aoloau. We stayed at Aoloau for three hours. Listening to the radio, to the deathtoll climbing.

We heard reports from Samoa...the damage caused to the villages of Falelatai, Lalomanu and Aleipata. People dead. People missing. Two radio stations were lost. The only one with open wire transmission was Showers of Blessings. We listened to prayers on the radio, looking down to waves gathering momentum out in the distance.

Meanwhile, the neighbours across the street brought coffee for the adults, bottled water and soda for the chidren.

Then we heard bells ringing from below. We didn't know what it meant. Maybe another death.

I decided to return home. It was becoming too chaotic up on the mountainside. The pollution from the vehicles climbing up the hill was chocking us. The only way to return to the bottom was to drive up higher and then turn the car around. As the car climbed, I was overwhelmed at the number of people that were already on Aoloau. It seemed like the entire island was up there!

We turned and descended but there was still a tremendous amount of traffic climbing the hill. Our house is still someways up from the coast. I decided it was the best place to be. We got to the house around 11am. Made the kids breakfast. We ate. Took a nap. I wanted the children to be as calm as possible.

* * *

When we woke around 3, my sister had made food for us. She told us the deathtoll on our island had climbed to 14. Half an hour later, that number became 22. With a lot more injured.

The deathtoll is mostly on the coastal areas. Villages lie in devastation. Cars washed into buildings. Boats washed up onto roads. And there's water everywhere. The mainroad in Fagatogo, the US Post Office is flooded. The images on the net are overwhelming.

I've just returned from outside. Everything is still. No wind. No movement among the trees. Nothing.

* * *

It is now 6pm. I am responding to emails from friends around the Pacific, NZ, LA, Seattle, New York, Michigan...an outpour of alofa for what is happening on our island.

The evening bells have just been rung for evening prayer. Our prayer tonight is that of gratitude that our family and neighbours are safe.

But our hearts are with those families who can not say the same. Who will sleep tonight without a son, a daughter, a mother, a father, an uncle, an aunt, a cousin. Their loss is our loss. Even the night birds feel it.

* * *

It is 9pm. My kids and I just returned from the village of Leone. We went to pick up my cousin Opi but he can't leave. He is completely devastated by today's events which he described to me on the verge of tears.

At 64, Opi's daily routine is walking the village.

"The quake hit as I was stretching at the gas-station. I warned Noelle that she had to lock up and leave as soon as she could. I knew there would be big waves because the quake shook for a good 5-6 minutes." As he left Noelle's store, he waved at a small fale cross the street, to four old women weaving mats.

"Go home! There's going to be a wave coming soon," he said. But the old women just laughed and called out to him instead, "Have faith, Opi! God is good!"

When he got up to his house, he heard a big crash, as if something had fallen from the sky. The first thing that came to his mind was those four women, waving at him. Looking down towards the village below, he saw the gigantic wave advancing onto the land. He ran towards the fale. He just wanted to get to the old women. But as he passed the Leone Dispensary, he realised how strong the wave was...and knew also, that no matter how fast he ran, the women were not going to be there.

"Still, I couldn't stop running. I just wanted to see them one more time. These women are always there at the fale. Every morning I do my rounds of the village, they are always there. Waving at me and I wave back at them."

Before he reached the village, the water was already up to his waist. "I knew the fate of those women when I saw how deep the water was. I knew that they were gone. I just wish I could have done something more. I could have gone over to them and taken them away from the fale with me in the first place. But the waves hit so fast. One minute I was waving at those old women and the next minute, they're gone."

I asked Opi if he wanted to come with us. That I had promised his son Samoa in Modesto California, who contacted me on Facebook that I would bring him up to our house. But he refused to leave. "No, this is where I belong. I need to be here. There's so much to do down here tomorrow. I need to be with the aumaga. I need to supervise the clean-up tomorrow."

Opi then hugged us all and told us to return home. But the boys wanted to see Leone. So we took a drive down to the village. The first thing that hits you is the stench of mud. Then, the visual devastation sinks in. Cars stuffed in houses. Traditional meeting houses broken in halves, stuffed with debris. The US Post Office was in complete ruins. All houses along the coast are flattened by debris.

"And I saw a shoe that must have belonged to a baby, Mom," said one of my sons.

As we passed Leone we noticed Public Works and ASPA, hard at work to connect the bridge. They waved at us and told us to drive carefully. We waved back and thanked them for working at this late hour.

On the radio there is one public announcement after another. All public and private schools will be closed till further notice. Electricity will be out for the night in some villages. Meetings cancelled. Etc, etc.

* * *

It is now 11pm. The children are all asleep. The neighbours' lights are out. The dogs are quiet. The land is quiet. The trees breathe peace into our dreams....God bless. Ia manuia le po. 

- NZ Herald

* Click here to donate to the Red Cross' Samoa earthquake/tsunami appeal.

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