Tsunami Impact

It’s a gross understatement to say that the 29 September 2009 Tsunami in Samoa had a big impact. Having taken many guests through the affected areas, the universal response is one of awe. The Tsunami was a tragedy.

The impact I am talking about goes way deeper than just loss of life and broken houses. It has had a deep and ongoing physical, spiritual, financial and emotional impact on both Samoan AND Palagi.

A month after the tragedy, I took four leaders from a South Coast that was literally in walking distance to view the affected areas. These people lived within a short walking distance of four majorly affected resorts. One of their sons even worked at on of them, yet they had never seen the damage first-hand!

These people were so scared of the cultural taboos of visiting their neighbouring village that they dared not even visit and their entire knowledge of the Tsunami was from the local TV and TV3 News. Being an independent Palagi I was however free to take my guests around, and give them a detailed guided tour of where the wave came and where it missed; show them the restoration work and educate the uneducated, even though they were the “locals”.

Throughout the tour, these Samoans would not stop talking – many times all four at once in the car – and the Matai would not eat that night after returning.

One of our Web Ambassadors who was knowledgeable of the Tsunami and Samoa explained their experience after travelling through the affected areas as “deeply unsettling”. It is all of that.

A day or so after seeing the damaged areas and as the shock settled in another guest was in tears, as they processed the shock from seeing people with so little losing all.

Another guest has referred to being in “awe of the devastation”, the power of the backwash sufficient to flip a 70ton digger 100m into the deep; buckle a reinforced 20mm steel plate barge leg, and demolish a massive brand new concrete wharf at Satitoa.

There are now many people without jobs. Many have relocated. Words fly back and forth over government corruption or incompetence, but the people and the country are slowly rebuilding. Many never will return to the coast. Many resorts will never reopen. Samoa as a tourism destination of safe pristine idyllic white sandy beaches will have been forever changed.

The impact of the Tsunami is stunning in its enormity on this nation, even perhaps the world.

Another aspect to the Tsunami’s impact, is the negative impact of the Tsunami on the local people now enjoying a handout mentality.

Over the last couple of months we have been privileged to spend quality time with a prominent South Coast MP who has been showing us his land and introducing his village to us. This man has been entirely gracious but has been very cautious in all dealings and discussions with us. He would explain the extent of the damage and details of the Tsunami quite reservedly for weeks.

He really came alive however and was highly animated when talking about the negative impact of the Tsunami upon his constituency.

“The Tsunami was the worst thing for our people” he says. “It has put them into a hand-out mentality. They now even expect people to give them food!”

The context to this is that food is available in abundance in Samoa and for years the issue of Remittances (gifts from relatives off-shore) have been a thorny topic. Relatively rich family off-shore have sent back gifts to their relatively poorer family in Samoa, which is a perfectly natural thing to do, but encourages a poverty mentality, or a hand-out mentality in the Samoan people here. The leaders have condemned this but it makes up a large percentage of GDP and it continues basically unabated.

As one New Zealand based Samoan said to me, “What do you expect? How can I not help my grandmother when she has nothing [by comparison]? It’s a perfectly natural thing to do!”

The problem that our MP sees so clearly is that except for the loss of life and the relocation further inland, the Tsunami has been a wind-fall for his people. Who would not milk the system and sit back and wait for another handout if they could? People have been known to deliberately exaggerate their plight in order to get construction materials, food, or other assistance.

There is undoubtedly much to do and much needed; new roading connecting plantations previously unconnected, but now required, power, water and other services. Many of this will take years to achieve and is all important, but the people are higly adept at “milking” the system and particularly any Palagi generosity.

The Tsunami has brought a lot of this to the surface, with a plethora of people wanting to give and to help.

Last year I blogged on how to give to Samoa effectively. A lot of it is still very true. The SWAP programme is designed to help people see and understand Samoa, hopefully with the result in increased tourism to Samoa. Tourism of people engaging with people, rather than people sitting on beaches.

It is definitely a gross understatement to say that the 2009 Tsunami had a big impact. The impact of the Tsunami is enormous and touches all of us remotely associated with Samoa in more ways than one.

Update: December 2012

A brief update on the impact of the 2009 Tsunami, three years on:

Most tourism operators in the main affected regions from Aleipata to Siumu on the South Coast have rebuilt. Several of them have taken the opportunity to invest more and have rebuilt better resorts – bigger, on higher ground, or higher quality. Some have gone, not rebuilt and many families have moved inland. Basic infrastructure such as power, water and roading was established for those who relocated inside the first two years, although there is still work being done on long-term improvements. Telephone lines and Internet have been the longest to restore and are still lacking somewhat. The economics of scale appear to make this a commercial challenge. The wharf is rebuilt and functional.

The psychological scars appear to be pretty much well healed from what I can see. In the last year or so, people seem to be much freer to talk about their losses – family and possessions. People who stayed have got on as best as they can. Those who have gone did so immediately, although a portion of them have returned.

Tourism is still affected by the Tsunami, despite the Tourism Authorities “head-in-the-sand” approach, unwilling to talk about it – certainly publicly. People I speak to acknowledge that it is still a factor in their decision-making, albeit a lesser concern than it was from previous years. Guests are always interested in the impact of the waves, to hear the stories of the people, and to experience the region of impact. There is still the feeling of awe, and a slight chilling when touching the subject and visiting the areas though.

You’d have to say as a whole that three years later, the country and people have pretty much recovered, although not fully. Coral is growing back but it will take years to reestablish. Sandy beaches are still sandy beaches, but not as sandy as before! Debris such as abandoned car bodies and damaged houses are still highly visible, so some areas still look like Greek ruins, or rubbish tips, but this will be the case for years, as there is neither government nor social motivation to “tidy up” private land.

The general feeling I get is that things are not what they used to be but that a new equilibrium has been reached. What you see today is the new norm for Samoa – a depressed struggling tourism market; a people doing their best to eek out a living with a bit of offshore assistance and a government being a typical government.

My marksheet:

The government – top marks. Took the funds and help and applied them in a Samoan context very well. Infrastructure sorted in a reasonable timeframe and difficult circumstances. Pretty much a “done-deal”.

The Tourism Authority – a good pass in some areas, with some good systems and important roles played throughout the whole recovery process, but totally “away with the fairies” in others. Sometimes, they know not how to engage with reality. Bureaucrats to the core, lacking in many important areas.

The international community – very good. Sure, a few funnies along the way but pretty good help when and where needed. Australia gets my best “tick” followed by New Zealand. UN a distant but creditable third, although I’m sure that others would put them and their associates at the top!

John Campbell and Tuila’epa – half marks. Actually, they both failed miserably, but both think they “won”. John has no clues as to the Samoan ways and got his stories and how he acted badly wrong. He is now seen as a fool in Samoa. The PM has no clues on marketing, and made a big mess over the whole thing, and half of New Zealand doesn’t trust him or Samoa as a result of how he handled John. Tuila’epa seems to only really understand or appear interested in his Samoan voting constituency and those whom he engages with at government level. Everyone who visits us from New Zealand still wants to know my take on the whole thing (“Was there really missing money? How much? Where did it go?”). I think the fact that most people in New Zealand have the “Tuila’epa and missing Tsunami money” as a primary residual memory is THE biggest loss from the whole 2009 Tsunami experience. This was totally unnecessary and easily preventable. Again just a result of lack of understanding marketing, especially cross-culturally.

The people – pretty good. Opportunism was rife, but that’s Samoa for you Tsunami or no Tsunami. Families did help families. NGOs did their thing well and the people got on with it as they had to. A few vocal whingers pulled the others who did knuckle in down a bit, but hey, again, this is Samoa for you!

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