Lalomanu Beach, Samoa. Five days after the tsunami.
We had stayed at Litia Sini’s beach fales on a previous trip to beautiful Lalomanu Beach in Western (Independent) Samoa. After 5 days of being stranded on the relatively unscathed island of Ofu, we flew back to Apia, and hired a taxi to see if we could offer our help to Litia and her family. We knew from radio reports that Lalomanu was hit hard by the tsunami.
We couldn’t believe our eyes when we got there. The entire beachfront (about 100 small cabins called ‘fales’) and four full size villages around the fales were simply gone. A few concrete foundations and lots of broken pieces of tin roofing and timber were all that remained. Mature palm trees were snapped off at the four foot level and there was a mountain of smoking debris against the cliff that rises up off the beach. Stunned villagers were just beginning the cleanup, having focused first on rescues and then on funerals earlier in the week.
We heard heart wrenching stories from them. The oldest surviving member of the Taufua family lost 13 close family members in one day. He was hard at work dragging debris across the beach, saying, ‘It’s time to survive and cleanup. Mourning will come later’. Several people that would have lived ended up drowning after having stayed back to knock on fale doors and warn people of the approaching wave. As the sun began to set, the Tafua family began piling rubble in to large heaps to burn. Cheri saved a wrinkled picture of two Samoan women before it was raked into the pile. Black smoke was drifting over the turquoise water into the tropical sunset.
As it got dark, one of the locals heard me asking about the heroes of the Tsunami rescue. He introduced me to ‘Otele’ and we stood next to one of the beach fires and talked a long time about his experience that morning. He worked at Tafua’s Fales and was up early that day. He felt the powerful earthquake and when he looked around, he was concerned that nobody seemed to be getting out of the fales. At that point he looked to the sea and saw it sucking back toward the reef. He immediately started running door to door to get people out of the fales, banging and yelling “Tsunami coming! Run! Run up the hill! Run NOW!!!’ Then, just before the 25 foot high wall of water approached, he turned and made a dash for the hill behind the camp with a New Zealand woman tourist he had just warned. They couldn’t get up the hill fast enough and the wave hit them. The ‘wall’ of water, as he described it, crashed into the line of fales and was now full of splintered timber and sharp pieces of tin roofing. He and the woman were battered by the waves and the debris, just out of safety’s reach. He suffered some contusions and abrasions and lost a couple teeth, but the New Zealander was more seriously injured and the wall of water began to recede and suck her backwards. He held onto her arm with one hand and a palm tree with the other and saved her life.
We sat in utter silence as he told the story. There was nobody else helping them out on the beach. Everything was being moved by hand. He said he needed to get back to work although it was now after dark. I asked to take a photo of him, suggesting that people really needed to hear his story. He shrugged off the suggestion but ultimately agreed to a couple shots and then his friends all started calling him ‘movie star’ and they all laughed, mocked each other and wrestled a bit. Then three of them asked to have their photos taken as well, all doing their best imitation of James Dean. Then they thanked us for coming to help, punched each other in the shoulder and went back to work, still laughing. It was a poignant ending of a powerfully emotional day.
They say it is a Samoan tradition that you never say goodnight without a smile on your face, and that was true here once again, even on this day, in this twilight, on this darkest of nights.
Want to help the families of Lalomanu Beach? Please visit this website for details: http://tinadesuza.blogspot.com/2009/10/thanks-to-all-these-wonderful-people.html
Addendum: February 11,2010. The fales are being rebuilt and are open again! http://www.facebook.com/pages/Aleipata-Samoa/Taufua-Beach-Fales/274691898784?v=wall