Flags fly at half-staff today honoring the 34 victims of 2009 Tsunami
Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — Lt. Governor Talauega E.V. Ale in his capacity as acting governor issued a memorandum yesterday calling on the people of American Samoa to pay tribute to the memory of the 34 people who lost their lives in the 2009 tsunami, which occurred on this date 14 years ago.
“As we approach the somber 14th anniversary of the September 29, 2009 tragedy, we remember the enduring impact on the heart and soul of American Samoa. This day reminds us of our unity, resilience, and the heroic actions of our unsung heroes who saved countless lives. In the face of unprecedented adversity, we witnessed the strength and courage of our community. Your selfless commitment and swift response serve as a testament to the bonds that unite us.
“In honor of the 34 victims of American Samoa, whose lives were taken by the Tsunami of September 29, 2023, it is hereby directed that the flags of the United States and American Samoa shall be flown at half-staff from sunrise September 29, 2023 till sunset of the same day.
“Let us stand in solemn tribute to their memory and enduring presence in our hearts.”
REMEMBERING THAT DAY
(This “first draft of history” was written one month after the event by Samoa News staff members Fili Sagapolutele, Tina Mata’afa, Teri Hunkin and Patty Page.)
In the South Pacific, mornings are often so stunningly beautiful, they can take your breath away. Tuesday, September 29 was one of those mornings in American Samoa. School children were up early waiting for their buses, gardeners were out on lawns and malae with their weed-eaters, and the bright morning light of late September came streaming through the jungle and glinted along the sparkling coastline with unusual clarity.
The turquoise sea was beautiful. But the ocean, like beauty itself, can be deceptive, and Tuesday morning, the sea proved deadly. Residents of the Samoan archipelago, which stretches through both American Samoa and neighboring independent Samoa, were jolted out of bed— and into a nightmare— as the first terrifying trembler hit the islands, followed closely by a tsunami which leveled villages at sea level, turning structures into sodden piles of rubble, and tossing cars into trees.
Today marks one-month since the nearly 8.3 magnitude earthquake struck causing a massive tsunami that swept through American Samoa, Samoa and Tonga, killing over 100 people and leaving behind damage estimated in the millions of dollars.
At 8.3, the earthquake would have easily qualified as a “great quake” had it occurred in a heavily populated urban area. Fortunately, the islands are not densely populated, but that makes no difference to those who lost everything. Their lives were changed forever within the minutes that elapsed from earthquake to killer wave.
It was around 6:48a.m. on Sept. 29 that the quake was felt in the Tafuna area, “it was strong and it lasted for over a minute,” according to a local Department of Homeland Security “situation report”, which notes that at 7:29a.m. they received a report of “water inundating Pago, homes and buildings destroyed - vehicles floating upside down and taken by the waves.”
Many people in the town area, including Samoa News staff already on duty, felt the strong earthquake and evacuated to the parking lot. Across the street, dock and Port Administration workers also came outside.
In a span of about 10 or 12 minutes the first word came that a tsunami had been generated, as electricity went out and people from the harbor ran to higher grounds, and the first wave surged over the Pago harbor covering the main road in Fagatogo, the Fono compound and the Fagatogo malae. Getting a call through the cell phones became difficult as lines were jammed and a cell phone call from the Leone side reported to Samoa News “massive devastation.”
At 7:40a.m. Sept. 29, ASDHS received an urgent call from DPS/ EMS for a 4x4 vehicle needed on the west side of Tutuila. At 7:45 “Another wave reaching land in Pago Pago. Two (heart attack) fatalities reported from Pago Pago,” according to the “situation report.” The report also provided communication efforts between ASDHS with the local weather station and federal officials off-island.
“8:07a.m: Reports from ASTCA of Leone receiving big wave surges on land. DPS request[ed] to receive updated report on the progress of the tsunami. An elderly lady from Leone who was swept out to sea was retrieved,” the report says.
Around 8:29a.m., according to the report, “sea water continues to impact on land in Pago Pago”. By 9:05a.m. the number of fatalities in Pago Pago increased to 5, while the Emergency Operation Center was already contacted by federal government agencies that they stood ready to send help to American Samoa.
The report also outlined the people involved when the earthquake occurred. At around 9:10, the ASDHS recorded information coming out of Leone about the bridge being washed away, and one fatality so far. By 10:56a.m. the fatality count reached 17 and the tsunami all clear signal was given.
Lt. Gov. Faoa A. Sunia, who was acting governor at the time, went on KSBS-FM around 9:30a.m. to address the territory about the situation, asking the public for calm and patience.
Close to 3p.m. KSBS-FM radio was able to reach Gov. Togiola Tulafono via cell phone and the governor informed the community that he had sent a request to President Barack Obama for an emergency declaration for American Samoa.
News of the disaster spread quickly through the islands and beyond in the hours following the quake with reports of devastation coming in from Pago Pago, Leone, Poloa, Auasi, Alao and Samoa.
National and International media spread the word, arriving in American Samoa in the following days and filing reports for Associated Press, CNN and the U.S. networks.
An Associated Press story published Thursday, Oct. 1, said because of a lethal combination of geology and geography, the people of American Samoa didn’t stand much of a chance.
Almost every condition that triggers bad tsunamis was in place this time, generating waves that raced toward the island territory at speeds approaching 530 mph, or as fast as a 747 jumbo jet. And there was almost nothing to slow the water down.
It all started with a type of earthquake that tends to generate strong tsunamis because of the angle at which the ground breaks. Also, the quake was extremely powerful, with a magnitude of over 8.0. It struck just below the ocean floor, which means very little lost energy. And it happened in deep water, which means bigger waves.
The deeper water also meant the tsunami sped along the ocean faster. American Samoa happened to be close to the epicenter, about 125 miles, and at just the right angle, with almost no shallow water to slow the speeding waves down.
Put that all together and there was less than 25 minutes, maybe as little as 13 minutes, between the ground shaking and the first tremendous waves swamping Samoa.
In the end — with resilience — White Sunday was celebrated Oct. 11 with families remembering the lost and cherishing the living.
REMEMBERING THOSE WE LOST
Fuatino Atumata Salave’a (Leone)
Li Chen (Pago Pago)
Michelle Eneliko (Leone)
Vaijoresa Fitiao (Leone)
Folalela Lauofo (Lauli’i)
Aionamu Leasiolagi (Fagatogo)
Elena Salave’a (Leone)
Columbus Sauiluma (Leone)
Tuluiga Sauiluma (Leone)
Helen Seui (Leone)
Sabrina Seva’aetasi (Masefau)
Lee In Shengi (Pago Pago)
Fofoga Timoteo (Fagatogo)
Eveline Puni-Tua’ato (Laulii)
Evelyn Tua’ato (Laulii)
Aiaifua Tuaopepe (Pago Pago)
Siasaga Tufu (Aua)
Billie Leota-Petelo (Pago Pago)
Taua Liutolo (Leone)
Piao Longqi (Pago Pago)
Van Tho Nguyen (Tafuna)
Daniel Peter Olszewski (Pago Pago)
Godafreda Palma (Pago Pago)
Kapisi Sima (Petesa)
Faaumaolagi So’oalo-Mua (Leone)
Faatamalii Sooto (Leone)
Perise Sula (Poloa)
Pita Tanielu (Tafuna)
Aterei Taua’a (Fagatogo)
Matanana Tusitala (Vaitogi)
Vaipalolo Viena (Pago Pago)
Hong Min Wei (Pago Pago)
Mija Woo (Asili)
Pu-Hee Woo (Asili)