This photo of Jay Jay and Mary Lyne sits in the window of Jaymy's Beach Fales kitchenette. Photo: Sapeer Mayron

The survivors of the Samoa tsunami, 10 years on

On the tenth anniversary of the tsunami that claimed 143 lives in Samoa, Sapeer Mayron speaks to the people who were there.

Sapeer Mayron is a reporter for the Samoa Observer, covering the 10th anniversary of the 2009 Tsunami. 

Ten years have passed since a devastating tsunami thrashed the shores of Samoa, and took the lives of 143 people in minutes. 

For some, the 8.1 magnitude earthquake and the tsunami that came eight minutes later feels like yesterday. For others, it has been ten long years of rebuilding, recovering and moving forward.

Taleo Vaaiga is one who has not looked back. He and his family never left the coast in Saleapaga, and immediately began rebuilding Manusina Beach Fales, the business his parents started back in 1994.

Taleo Vaaiga rebuilt Manusina Beach Fales following the tsunami. Photo: Sapeer Mayron

“I am just thinking forward. The tsunami is over” he said.

They had no power, running water, or a car. And they were alone, with other survivors already rebuilding their lives up on the village hilltop.

Taleo remembers hearing voices and cries of babies in the night from the sea. At least 30 people died from Saleapaga that day.

But leaving his family’s land was not on the table.

“It was really difficult, and it was really hard for us to continue to stay here, but we tried our best to make our family members excited to return our life to the beginning,” he said. 

For another beach fale owner in the village, returning to the coast after moving uphill was, and still is, slow going.

Perelini Ulugia is still scared of another tsunami, but has rebuilt his life on the coast anyway. Photo: Sapeer Mayron

Perelini Ulugia and his wife lost their two year old Jay Jay and seven month old Mary Lyne to the tsunami.

It took Perelini and his wife four years to move back down to the coast. His wife didn’t want to lose her land, or her memories of their children there, and he admits she had to push him to move.

Together they built Jaymy’s Beach Fales, named in honour of Jay Jay and Mary Lyne. Their photo is in the window of the kitchenette in the dining fale.

Today, if the wind is extra strong at night he imagines another tsunami is coming, and panics.

Elders in Saleapaga who have stayed uphill until today face both challenges and blessings, feeling safer away from the sea but struggling to live without it. 

“When we lived near the sea, we were able to do so many tasks. We wanted some fish, we were near the fish,” village matai (chief), Puletinatoa Povalu said.

“When we were near the sea, the village council’s role was secured but it does not feel that way anymore. In those times it was so easy to see your neighbours and chat but now that is so hard.”

Just 4.5 kilometres away in Lalomanu, 60 people died in the tsunami. That was 7.5 per cent of the population at the time. 

Lisha Ofisa Filipo survived because his quick thinking bus driver sped up the hill instead of continuing along the coastline when the earthquake hit.

Lisha lost ten family members to the tsunami, including a baby boy. But he tries to talk about it often. 

“The more you talk about the tsunami the more the grieving inside you, the sad feeling inside you is released,” he said.

Lisha Ofisa Filipo from Lalomanu was just 19 when the tsunami hit. Photo: Sapeer Mayron

For many families in the region, moving to customary land in the hills with existing plantations made recovery easier.

Research by the Family Centre in New Zealand and the Archdiocese of Samoa found 94.1 per cent of families affected by the tsunami had access to other customary land.

Counsellor and researcher Taimalieutu Kiwi Tamasese, who arrived the day after the tsunami with a platoon of mental health workers, believes that customary land, as well as Samoa’s cultural and religious identity explains how people were able to recover.

“We take that away and we may not be able to respond to another natural disaster as fast as we did to that one,” she said.

Samoa’s pastoral care capacity also proved essential. The Family Centre quickly trained 40 volunteers from the Catholic Archdiocese to deliver post-disaster counselling, which they did for 301 families over the next five months.

“Our people here, the priests, nuns and catechists would have been skilled to provide counselling to families, be it on the physical level, spiritual level or mental level,” Taimalieutu said.

“They need to be supported with just a few other skills to actually not be so confounded at the moment of tragedy.”

Speaking to just a few survivors ten years on, it is clear Samoa is strong in the face of adversity. But the old wounds of the tsunami will not heal fully without help.

Those who stayed and rebuilt their hospitality businesses have shared their stories with thousands of tourists in the last decade. They appear stronger for it. There are many that have not talked about it to this day. 

And the impacts of climate change are already affecting the survivors. 

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Samoa’s sea level has already risen more than the global average; by about four millimetres per year since 1993 (the global average is 2.8 to 3.6 mm per year). Under a high carbon emissions scenario could rise between five and 15 centimetres by 2030.

Coastal erosion is damaging the beach fale businesses and the Aleipata district tourism association is looking at moving everyone inland – including the main road.

Two years of extra high king tides have reached parts of the shore they never used to. Both Taleo and Perelini are concerned for their futures.

“It’s a big job, it will cost a lot,” Taleo said about moving the fales inland. But he is not going anywhere.


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