On Tutuila Island: The day of the tsunami

On Tutuila Island: The day of the tsunami

As the waves gathered momentum in the distance, people listened to prayers on radio

The calm after the storm: Residents examine the debris of a home on Tutuila, the main island of American Samoa on Wednesday. AP

I packed up my three boys and drove them to school. Just after I’d dropped them at the gate and was heading to my office, I turned on the radio. The announcer was talking about cars floating like toys in the parking lot of the Pago Plaza shopping centre and warned that the tsunami’s second and third waves were expected to hit us on Tutuila Island in less than an hour. I swung the car back toward the school. I just wanted to get to my children.

The road was jammed with traffic and, at the school, frantic parents were calling out their children’s names. Moi, the principal, was encouraging everyone not to panic. Our children, he said, had been evacuated to the highest point on the school grounds, and we could pick them up there.

On my way, I heard hymns. Some children were singing, while others were praying and crying. It was quite a sight. I saw one of my sons and told him to go look for his brothers while I did the same. After 15 minutes he ran to me and said everyone was at the car, and I quickly ran there, too.

Reports from Samoa

My 10-year-old was in tears. “Mom, I don’t want to die,” was how he greeted me. My only thought was to drive to the highest accessible point on Tutuila — the village of Aoloau. The drive up, usually 5 minutes, took 20; it seemed everyone was heading there. We stayed in Aoloau for three hours, listening on the car radio to updates on the rising death toll. We heard reports from the neighbouring nation of Samoa, the damage that the tsunami had done to the villages of Falelatai, Lalomanu and Aleipata. People had died. People were missing. Two radio stations had been lost. The only one still transmitting was the religious station. We listened to prayers as we watched waves gathering momentum below in the distance.

Meanwhile, people living across the street from where we and many others were gathered brought coffee and bottled water, and soda for the children. At one point, we heard bells ringing from down the mountain. We didn’t know what it meant — maybe another death.

I decided to return home. It was becoming too chaotic where we were, and the exhaust from cars and trucks climbing the hill was choking. As we climbed, I was amazed by the hundreds and hundreds of people atop Aoloau — this island’s entire population of 62,000, it seemed. As we descended, a tremendous amount of traffic was still on its way up.

Our house is at least six miles from the coast, and I decided we would be safe there. We got home around 11 am. We ate breakfast, then took a nap; I wanted the children to be as calm as possible.

The photos posted online were overwhelming. Villages lay devastated. Cars had been washed into buildings, boats onto roads. And water was everywhere. On the main road in Fagatogo, the post office was flooded.

By 6 pm, everything was still. No wind moved the trees. I responded to e-mail messages from friends in New Zealand, Los Angeles, Seattle, New York, Michigan — an outpouring of concern for our island. I heard the bells ring for evening prayer. Our prayer was one of gratitude that our family and neighbours were safe. But our hearts were with — are still with — those who cannot say the same, who would sleep for the first time that night without a son, a daughter, a mother, a father, an uncle, an aunt, a cousin. Their loss is our loss.

My cousin named Samoa, in Modesto, US, contacted me on Facebook to ask if I would pick up Opi, his 64-year-old father, who lives on the mountain above the coastal village of Leone, and bring him to my house. So I loaded the children into the car and drove over there. But Opi could not think of leaving his beloved Leone. I listened intently as he told the story of his day.


Opi starts every morning by walking through the village. “The quake hit as I was stretching at the gas station,” he said. “I warned Noelle to lock up and leave as soon as she could. I knew there would be big waves because the quake shook for a good five to six minutes.” As he left Noelle’s store, he waved to four old women weaving mats in a small fale — a Samoan thatched-roof shelter — across the street. “Go home!” he told them. “There’s going to be a wave coming soon.” But the old women just laughed and called out: “Have faith, Opi! God is good!”

When he got up to his house, he heard a crash, as if something had fallen from the sky. Looking down toward the village, he saw the gigantic wave advancing onto the land. He ran toward the fale to get to the four women. But as he passed the dispensary, he realised how strong the wave was, and knew that no matter how fast he ran, they would not be there.

Before he even reached the village, the water was already up to his waist. I asked Opi if he wanted to come with us. “No, this is where I belong,” he said. “I need to be here. There’s so much to do down here 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 hit us was the stench of mud. Then, we could see the devastation: cars stuffed in houses, buildings broken in half and filled with debris. The post office there was in ruins. All the houses along the coast were flattened by debris.

On the radio, we heard one public service announcement after another. All schools were closed till further notice. Electricity was out for the night in some villages.
Meetings were cancelled.

We got home at 9 pm. By 11, the children were all asleep. The neighbours’ lights were out. The dogs were quiet. The land was quiet. The trees breathed peace into our dreams.