Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Victims of Tsunami in South Pacific (Samoa)



Victims of the tsunami that swept across the South Pacific had only minutes to escape the deadly waves and in some cases didn't receive alerts of danger, despite years of work to upgrade early-warning systems across the region.

At least 99 people were killed and dozens left missing by the tsunami, which inundated tourist resorts and local villages after a massive 8.0-magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of Samoa early Tuesday morning local time. Disaster authorities warned the death toll could rise significantly over the next few days as the full scale of the disaster – much of which occurred in remote areas – is assessed.

AUDIO

WSJ reporter Patrick Barta discusses the damage from the Tsunami that hit Samoa and the surrounding islands, and the difficulty of assessing the situation in remote areas.

WSJ Topics

Tsunamis
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Associated Press
A boat from Malaloa Marina is seen on the edge of the main highway in the village of Fagatogo in American Samoa.
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News Hub: Tsunami Hits Samoa, Wipes Out Village
1:50
Reporting from Wellington, New Zealand, Dow Jones Newswires' Simon Louisson tells The News Hub at least one village in Samoa was wiped out by a tsunami wave. The wave followed a massive earthquake that struck close to the Pacific Island group.
Fears of further waves generally abated late in the day as relief workers set about treating victims and recovering bodies that were washing up along the shores. Although small waves were measured as far away as Japan, that country withdrew its tsunami warnings by afternoon and the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii, which monitors possible tsunami threats in the region and issued its own temporary warnings earlier, didn't raise fresh alerts.

The warnings appeared to help prevent injury in some areas. Residents in the Samoan capital of Apia said emergency officials fanned out across the city to warn of the Tsunami Warning Center's first alerts, while staff at Aggie Grey's, a historic hotel along the waterfront, said they quickly moved guests to upper levels to escape danger.

"There were sirens and emergency workers all over the place, pestering people to walk up the hill," said Cherelle Jackson, a resident. But much of the worst danger "was on the other side of the island," she said, and informing residents in those areas, which are less densely populated, was much harder. In some places, she and others said, the messages didn't get through.

Indeed, the fact that many people died in the Samoan islands underscores the most vexing element of planning for tsunamis: Often the biggest challenge isn't knowing when a tsunami is coming, but getting the information out to everyone once the risk arises.

Although Samoa has a system to alert residents by text message, it was unclear if messages went sent out to all parts of the country and residents said some radio stations never interrupted their music. Mobile-phone service is spotty in some rural parts of Samoa, which may have complicated matters. Calls to Samoan government officials were not answered by day's end.

Morison McGregor, a 47-year IT consultant who lives in Denmark, says he and his girlfriend received no official warning after they felt the earthquake while at a resort along the Samoan coast, so they assumed everything was okay. Within ten minutes, though, his girlfriend saw a wave coming and started signaling for the two of them to flee, he said.

"When you looked back you could see a three- to four-meter wall of water behind you," he said. They ran to a hill about 100 to 150 meters away and escaped without major injury, though they lost their passports, laptops and other possessions.

Several other guests were killed, he said, including a Brazilian woman who was staying in an adjacent villa and a three-year old child of a British man there. More than a dozen other residents in the area were killed as well, and the resort was largely destroyed, he said.

"It's easy for us because we can go back home, we can replace our laptops, but people there have nothing," he said.

Experts generally agree that tsunami detection methods have improved significantly over the years through the use of high-tech buoys and other equipment that measure changes in water pressure. Such information is used by scientific centers like the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center to alert governments, which then must notify their citizens.

Governments in the South Pacific, meanwhile, have taken their own steps, especially since a massive tsunami hit South and Southeast Asia in December 2004, killing more than 200,000 people. Their efforts have included boosting training of disaster-preparedness staff and identifying more evacuation routes, experts say.


Tsunamis Sweep Samoa
1:28
A series of tsunamis smashing into American and Western Samoa in the Pacific have killed possibly more than 100 people, according to officials. Courtesy Reuters
But many people in Asia and the South Pacific live in remote areas that may not have been listening for radio or phone warnings. The problem was compounded in the case of the latest tsunami because the earthquake occurred so close to land, about 125 miles (200 kilometers) from Samoa and American Samoa, meaning there was only a matter of minutes before the waves began sweeping ashore.

Many people "did get a warning, as I understand it, but it was a very short time because the earthquake wasn't far offshore," said Bob McMullan, Parliamentary Secretary for International Development Assistance in Australia. At least one Australian woman was killed, and six others were missing. "I don't think the tsunami warning failed; I just think there wasn't time for it to have effect," he said, though he added, "we'll have to have a look at whether there was a planning or information problem."

In cases involving earthquakes that are so close to the shore, "the propagation of warnings from official sources" can be "useless," added Sanny Ramos Jegillos a regional crisis prevention and recovery coordinator for the United Nations Development Program in Bangkok. What may be needed, he said, is more training of local communities to teach residents and tourists that they must evacuate to higher ground even without official warnings whenever a strong earthquake occurs.


It remained difficult to get a full reading of the damage due to problems in reaching remote areas by phone or by road. On one Samoan island, a giant boat was found washed ashore alongside a highway, while wetlands were filled with trash and debris. Several tourist resorts reported partial or total destruction.

Hundreds of people in Samoa were being treated for injuries, the Associated Press reported, with many continuing to straggle into treatment centers late in the day, and the Samoa Red Cross said it had opened five temporary shelters to help with the 15,000 people who were affected by the tsunami. At least 63 people were dead in Samoa, and 30 were killed in American Samoa, the AP said, citing local police and other officials.

Authorities in Tonga confirmed at least six people were killed in that nearby island nation, the AP said.

At the Sinalei Reef Resort and Spa, a posh retreat of white sand beaches and bungalows along Samoa's southern coast, a restaurant and pier were severely damaged or destroyed, along with the resort's presidential suite and honeymoon villa, according to a note from management posted on the resort's Web site. The resort said that all guests and staff were safe and relocated to other undamaged resorts and that Sinalei is now closed until further notice. An employee who answered the phone at the resort said staff were too busy to answer additional questions.

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