Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Samoa's disaster zone

I was incredulous when I turned on the TV this morning and saw Oliver Driver announcing that Samoa had been hit by an earthquake and a tsunami. Located securely in the middle of the Pacific, far from the unstable rim that brings so many quakes to Chile and Japan and the Hawkes Bay, Samoa is not a place where we expect the earth's crust to shake and crack. The earthquake which occurred last night off the American-controlled island of Tutuila was easily the most severe in living memory.

The tsunami seems to have thrown much of its force at the southeastern coast of Upolu. Upolu is the most populous island in the Samoan archipelago, but most of its people live on its northern coast, in and around the city of Apia. By comparison with the villages that cluster around Apia, the settlements in the east and south of the island feel isolated, and a little neglected.

The road which circumnavigates Upolu becomes potholed as it approaches Lalomanu, a village in the island's extreme southeast which boasts a couple of magnificent but rundown churches and a view of the bush-clad and almost uninhabited Aleipata Islands, which sit a few kilometres to the east, beside the path that ferries and cargo ships take to Tutuila. (New Zealand colonial administrators used Nu'utele, the largest island in the Aleipatas, as a dumping ground for lepers.)

This photo shows the coastline near Namua, the closest of the Aleipata islands to the coast, and perhaps gives some idea of the exposed nature of the extreme southeast of Upolu:

The coast is low-lying, dwellings sit across the road from the water, and the reef which can be seen behind Skyler is located only a short distance from the shore.

After Lalomanu, the road passes a series of surf beaches that face south across the open Pacific. Good beaches are relatively rare on Samoa, and several resorts have been constructed in this area. Eventually the stretches of sand turn to shallow bays and mangrove-fringed estuaries, and the resorts give way to villages like Poutasi and Safata. The cyclone which descended in 2004 hit these villages especially hard, and when Skyler and I visited them earlier this year we saw corrugated iron rooves lying in mangrove forests.

Samoa is very vulnerable to tsunamis, because an extraordinary number of its people live close to the coast. Archaeologists have found ruined villages and signs of ancient cultivations in the centre of Upolu, and oral history tells of people living inland to escape the Tongans who conquered coastal areas in the Middle Ages. With the advent of contact with European traders and missionaries, though, much of the population moved toward the coast. Today, only a handful of the villages in Samoa's two main islands are sited inland.

The relatively flimsy nature of many Samoan dwellings is also likely to have worsened the effects of the tsunami. In the villages that dot the southeastern coast Western-style houses with four solid walls are much less common than traditional fale, which have thatched rooves and use mats or thatch for walls. The fale is well-suited to the hot and humid conditions of an equatorial country like Samoa, but it is not likely to offer much defence against giant waves.

As the death toll from the disaster in Samoa rises, the need for foreign aid becomes clear. New Zealand has a particular duty, and not only because of its huge Samoan population.

As every Samoan knows, New Zealand let Samoa down badly when the archipelago was visited by a previous natural calamity. In 1918 New Zealand administrators allowed the Spanish flu into the island on a ship that should been quarantined, and then refused to take the resulting epidemic seriously. A fifth of Samoans died as a result of the incompetence and racism of the Kiwi colonists. A generous response to today's calamity might help to balance memories of 1918.


Anonymous Lisa said...

I pray that there are no more deaths. I thought the contestants of the show Survivor were in Samoa, I hope they are all safe.

4:08 pm  
Blogger Edward said...

been listening to it on the radio, what a tragedy. I can't even imagine. According the CNN America is sending federal aid, and as I understand it we're already over there. This is terrible. Indonesia was struck yesterday by a similar scale earthquake.

10:21 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"A generous response" to "balance" memories of the past sounds like blood money to me.

NZ has an ethical duty to help its Pasifik neighbours because they are human beings.

6:16 pm  
Anonymous george said...

I totally argee with anon, very well said

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