Laura Reinhardt, a frequent magazine contributor, is in American Samoa with a team assessing World Vision’s relief response to the earthquake and tsunami.
On Saturday, the sun shone brightly, bringing sweltering heat. Our first stop was the village of Amanave, in the western part of the island. As Bishop Tavai drove us there, Tom and I exclaimed over the beauty of the ocean. The water turned from shades of pale turquoise to deep azure and was so clear that we could see all the way down to the rocks. Palm trees, bread-fruit trees, and coconut trees swayed in the soft ocean breeze.
Looking at this tropical beauty, I found it hard to believe that this same seemingly benign ocean had wrought such devastation.
As I wandered around Amanave taking pictures of the wreckage, a woman called me over to her house. A young man who had been talking with her told me, “This is the high talking chief of Amanave.” I had no idea what a “high talking chief” meant, but it sounded important.
The woman, Taua Niualama Taifane, explained that she is the voice for her village. She makes sure that the needs of the people are met. Since the tsunami, this has been quite a job; many of the homes were damaged or destroyed. Her own home did not escape untouched. The roof over her family’s living quarters and adjoining store collapsed. All the items in her store were destroyed. “Life is not the same,” she said.
When the earthquake struck, Niualama headed over to the local school to check on the children. She ordered her own sons, Eddie Boy and Victor, to get to higher ground.
Eddie Boy, 19, who sat plunking a guitar as we talked, told me that he and Victor hitched a ride in the back of a pickup truck. The first wave knocked Eddie Boy off the truck. He ran for his life and reached higher ground. Looking back down on his village, he saw the second wave strike. All he could see was the rooftops. Then the third wave hit, and he couldn’t see anything, not even the church.
The family slept out in their driveway for the first week until they got their FEMA tent. The tents are supposed to sleep four people, but I looked inside, and three cots take up most of the space. The tents have no floors, so when the rainy season comes, people will have little protection against the elements.
Family pictures, children’s toys, shards of broken tile, linoleum ripped from floors—all were scattered in front of people’s homes. The wave hit one church with such force that the pews ripped loose from the floor. Now those pews sit stacked up in front of the church.
On our way back, we stopped again in Amanave, where we met Pamela Luaao, 34. Her family home and guest house were wiped out in the tsunami. Where the guest house once stood, now there stands a FEMA tent with her colorful laundry drying on top. She said that her family barely escaped the wave. They were just ahead of it as they barreled up the hill. “Our truck literally saved our lives,” she said.
She described a dream her 8-year-old son had after the tsunami. In it he was a member of a superhero team. His power, he told his mother, was the greatest of all the superheroes, because was able to stop the wave from hitting his village.
More to come from Laura in Samoa this week.