Saturday, October 3, 2009

My earthquake and tsunami experience on Ta'u

Over the past three days, I've been trying to process the events from Tuesday. It's been nearly impossible to come to terms with the earthquake and tsunami's effects, and I am still trying to navigate how to deal with the events. I think telling the story about how my village was effected is the best I can do. My experiences were scary, but at the end of the day, I am so so lucky that our village was essentially untouched by the two natural disasters. My thoughts and prayers are with everyone in American Samoa, Western Samoa, Tonga, Indonesia and everywhere else in the world that has been suffering from the effects of natural disasters.

Tuesday started off like any other Tuesday. I was up at 6:30 to get ready to be to school by 7 am. It's nice that my elementary school classroom is about a ten foot walk from my fale, so there's never any need to hurry. KC stopped by around ten of 7 so we could walk over together. As we were about to leave my fale, the floor of my house began to tremor. KC looked at me, and she asked what was happening. I said, I think this is an earthquake. I remembered the one from about a month ago that occured late in the night around 4am. I was half asleep, when I awoke to my bed swaying back and forth- it felt like I was on a small sloop in the middle of the ocean. This time, though, everything shook: the walls, my bed, the shelves, the table. The earth started to moan and shift, and it sounded like walls of my house were groaning from the pressure and movement. KC and I were unsure what to do at first- the last earthquake had only lasted about 30 seconds, but 30 seconds into this one we knew we needed to get outside. We walked out of the fale to the property next to Aso's house and stood there. The earth continued to shift and sway to the point where I almost couldn't stand up. People started pouring out of their houses. Aso came out of her house and looked at me with a fearful gaze. "It's not stopping," I said to her depserately, my tone half telling her, half asking her to do something about it. I started to panic as the movement of the earth grew more exaggerated. I just kept saying "oh my god oh my god" over and over again. KC and I stared at each other as the earth moaned and swayed around us. Finally, after the longest three minutes of my life, the 8.3 earthquake slid to a stop.
I looked at KC, my heart still pounding, and I said, "there's going to be a tsunami." We both ran to our cell phones and called our parents leaving messages as calmly as possible that there had just been a massive earthquake and please let us know if there were any tsunami warnings. I went back inside to get my backpack with my belongings in it, and KC went on ahead to school. Once I met her in the schoolyard, she waved me over to where her and another teacher were conferencing. She told me that she got through to her dad, and they had put out a tsunami warning for our country. "We're evacuating," she said. It was so surreal...I couldn't believe it was happening. Our warning had come from the US- from KC's dad! where was the Samoan gov't on this? I started to get nervous as the principal gathered all of the children and teachers to begin praying. I began to fidget with nervous energy- I kept thinking we need to get to high ground. Our school is about 35 feet from the open water of the Pacific- who knew how much time we had. I asked a teacher what we were waiting for after the prayer, and she said the bus was on it's way. Unfortunately, our island has been without gasoline for two months, so our vehicle supply was dwindling, which is obviously unnerving in an evacuation situation. Suddenly, Sano, the ex-military 7th grade teacher, came running around the main office building screaming in Samoan. The teachers and the children started yelling and everyone began running for the hill. I looked at KC..we had no idea what anyone was saying. We started running alongside the children, trying to stay calm and keep order as much as possible. I kept yelling frantically at Samoan teachers to explain to us what was happening. Everyone was so scared that no one heard my question in the chaos. Finally, the first grade teacher heard and responded: "The big wave is coming, the big wave is coming- go go!"

I was sure at that exact moment that I was going to die. I have never been so terrified in my entire life. We just kept running for the hill. Finally, we made it to the top of the first hill and trucks began to speed towards us from the other side of town. KC and I began to throw the school kids into the backs of pickup trucks. Finally, we found one full truck with one space in the passengers seat open, so we pleaded for the driver to stop and let us in. Once we were in together, we told him to go as fast as he could down the hill, into the next town, so we could make it to the base of the mountain. We had to get to the top of the mountain to get up away from sea level. Just as we were coming down the hill, KC looked out the window to the coastline below. The ocean had receded out far past where low tide can reach. The water was a murky brown, pulling back out towards the deep, blue water. We didn't know where the water was going, but we were sure it would have to come back soon. We yelled at the driver to go faster- yelling to the children to hold on as the truck bumbled over the dirt road through Ta'u. The driver cussed that he didn't know this was going to happen. No one told him- and now we were running out of gas. KC and I began to pray, and I was almost to tears as we reached the base of the mountain. The truck began to stall as we slowly slowly crawled up the 75 degree incline. Finally, the truck died, and we jumped out of the car, pulling the children out of the back of the truck and running them up the hill. I was on the phone with my mom at this point, and I was lucky to let her know I had made it to high ground. The trucks kept flying up the hill from town, bringing loads and loads of people. One large yellow school bus unloaded half of the village along with pillows and blankets. We made our way to the top of the mountain to the high school, where we were able to gather most of our classes and wait under a metal pavilion for more news. We were there for hours, taking phone calls from friends and family. Letting them know we were okay. Though we were without electricity or water for hours, we knew we were lucky to be alive. Our village was one of the only villages untouched by the tsunami. We had a surge of water that destroyed some boats in our harbor and the earthquake took out some trees and caused some rock slides, but our houses and roads were safe from the dangerous forces that could have easily wiped our little coastal village off the map. Even the islands of Ofu and Olosega just a quarter of a mile away had destruction and one missing person. The main island, where the rest of the volunteers were located, was obviously the most effected. Though all of us volunteers are alive and safe, we're all trying to help our villages and islands cope with the losses they've had. Students in my class lost family members in Pago Pago. Friends on Tutuila lost students and teachers. The emotional trauma on my island definitely left me shaken up after the earthquake and tsunami, but I am very lucky, and my heart goes out to everyone in American Samoa- because everyone is family here.


  1. Hi---just wanted to let you know that I'm so glad you shared this. Its hard to make it all seem real over on this side of the globe (I mean, even Katrina seemed pretty distant to me...), and getting such a personal account really helps. Glad to hear that your village escaped the worst of it. Good luck with everything, and hang in there!!! :)

  2. Wow, Thats Like something you see or hear on one of those survival shows. Holy Shit Courtney. Stay Safe.