The 8.3 earthquake that shook Samoa on September 29 triggered a tsunami that devastated the south-coast of Upolu island, the south-coast of Tutuila in American Samoa and the Niueas group in Tonga. People on the coast had around 5- 10 minutes warning to evacuate – many did not make it.
The districts of Aleipata and Falealili on the south-east coast of Upolu have been the most extensively damaged with entire villages and all hotels and small resorts annihilated along the coast.
The mounting death toll stands now at 178 with many people not yet accounted for. A total of 40 villages have been affected and the homeless population is estimated now over 10,000. This represents 6% of the total population of Samoa being affected by the tsunami.
The Aleipata District is where CI is most active in Samoa in partnering and supporting local communities marine protected areas (MPAs), as part of the Coral Reef Initiative in the Pacific (CRISP) program. We are also the only International NGO in Samoa, so we are liaising closely with the relief effort agencies, the Red Cross, the Disaster Management Unit, SPREP and UNDP.
Beyond the immediate relief work, there will be a much larger longer-term need for reconstruction, community income-generation initiatives and ecosystem restoration as the reef, we suspect, has been extensively damaged. We also hope to be able to fully capitalize the MPA Trust Fund set up by the local communities to ensure sustainability of the reconstruction and conservation initiatives. Communities income in these affected areas is derived mainly from coastal tourism and subsistence fishing, both heavily affected by the tsunami.
CI, as the only international NGO in Samoa, and with our long-established partnerships with communities of the south-coast, is well positioned to provide long-term support. Our technical staff, Sue Taei (marine) and James Atherton (terrestrial) are both involved in the Government of Samoa mandated Tsunami Environmental Impact Assessment and the team is seconded to UNEP, jointly with MNRE, UNESCO and SPREP to conduct the first rapid field assessment of all coastal villages impacted by the tsunami.
This is a real human tragedy at the scale of our small island, so we do thank all of CI staff and our larger CI family who have expressed their condolences and have shared their thoughts with our small team in Samoa.
Francois Martel is the Executive Director of the Pacific Islands Program at Conservation International. The program’s headquarter is located in Apia, Samoa.