Samoa: Remembering the tsunami of 2009

The destruction caused by the tsunami on Lalomanu in 2009 CREDIT: OCHA

Tsunami in Samoa – 3 Years On

In the early hours of Tuesday, 29 September 2009, as the people of Samoa went about the start of a new day, the serenity of that tropical island was violently shattered by an earthquake measuring 8.2 on the Richter scale. In a matter of minutes, successive tsunami waves of up to 15 meters in height rushed ashore causing widespread destruction.

At Samoa’s request, a United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) Team travelled to Samoa to provide coordination support to the emergency relief operations and  initial assessments of the destruction, conducted by a team from the Government of Samoa, Red Cross, NGO’s, Australia, New Zealand and the UN Country Team . The Inter Agency Standing Committee, under the leadership of the Emergency Relief Coordinator, then activated the cluster system in Samoa.

 “When we arrived we quickly saw how serious the damage was along the entire southern coastline. An estimated 3,000 Samoans had completely lost their homes whilst some 2,000 houses had suffered severe damage.” said Peter Muller, Head of OCHA’s Regional Office for the Pacific, who led the UNDAC Team. “Fortunately, OCHA had conducted a simulation exercise with the Disaster Management Office just five months earlier, focusing on what to do in the event of a tsunami.”

With 143 people confirmed dead, and four people still missing, the tsunami response and associated recovery presented a major challenge to the nation of 184,000 inhabitants. It was difficult to know where to begin, with villages along the Aleipata coastline unrecognisable. Where 100 homes once stood in the picturesque bay of Lalomanu, all that remained was bare earth and debris.

Today, three years after the tragic tsunami, the village is slowly recovering. Mrs. Taufua-Apelu, a cousin of the owner of beachfront guesthouse Taufua Beach Fales, said that the whole of their beachfront area was destroyed. Despite losing fourteen members of her family, the determination to rebuild their lives and business remained.

Samoa is using the lessons learned from the tsunami to prepare for future natural disasters. There are now disaster management plans for many of the villages and tourism operations that were hit by the tsunami, including programmes to raise awareness in the villages about potential hazards. Some of Samoa’s coastal villages erected signs to identify evacuation routes and carried out simulation exercises for communities to practice evacuation drills.

At the national level, a local volunteer network has been established under the auspice of Samoa’s Fire Service Department. These volunteers are trained to be the first responders in case of future emergencies. In addition, the National Disaster Management Plan now reflects the links between the national organisations and the international humanitarian clusters.

The lessons learned from the tsunami response in Samoa, related to displacement, psycho-social support, recovery planning and housing reconstruction have been used as best practice examples in other disaster responses in the Pacific Island region.

The OCHA Regional Office for the Pacific continues to support the Samoan Government to prepare for future emergency situations. Currently, OCHA is working with humanitarian partners in Samoa to link Samoa’s existing in-country response system with regional support systems, such as the Pacific Humanitarian Team, a platform to coordinate humanitarian actors across the region. In October, OCHA facilitated the 5thAnnual Pacific Humanitarian Team Regional Workshop in Fiji, bringing together over 100 humanitarian actors from the Pacific Island region to focus on best practice built on the lessons learned from humanitarian responses in the region.

Updated Date: 
28 November, 2012

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