The challenges of post-tsunami Samoa

October 7, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Greg Casagrande  </span>
    In just a few moments, a tsunami reduced dozens of Samoan villages to rubble. Photo: Greg Casagrande
  <span class="field-credit">
    Greg Casagrande  </span>
    A client of South Pacific Business Development Foundation, Mercy Corps' partner in Samoa, stands in what's left of her business after it was devastated by the tsunami. Photo: Greg Casagrande

Monday was a very long day. We visited with dozens and dozens of South Pacific Business Development Foundation (SPBD) ladies who have been severely impacted by the Samoan Tsunami. The stories they tell and their grief is extreme.

One SPBD member, Ruta Sao —who has a small taro plantation — tells of losing four of her children (ages: five months, two, four and five) when the wave hit. Each of their bodies has since been recovered and they will all be buried in the mass national funeral this Thursday. Ruta is now living high up on a mountainside under a tarp held up by four large sticks. She insists that she is not leaving.

In fact, there is a whole enclave of people from Ruta’s village of Saleapaga who have now moved up there. They all insist that they will never go back to Saleapaga. And after experiencing such terrifying tragedy who can blame them?

We will help her and the others rebuild new and safe homes on the hillside above Saleapaga.

The prime purpose for today’s activities was to individually assess each of the survivors' situations and determine how we can best assist them. People like Ruta are still grieving tremendously and perhaps what she needs most is time, and then some counseling and then some opportunity. We are good at providing economic opportunity. We hope to also link her and others with some charitable psychological counseling organizations that will be arriving on the island in the next couple of weeks.

The village next door to Saleapaga, Lalomanu, was also largely wiped out. Thanks to a nearby off-shore island which bore the brunt of the tsunami, some houses in Lalomanu were mercifully spared. We had organized a group of 21 of our micro-entrepreneurs with whom we work in Lalomanu and were gauging very specifically how each was impacted.

One of our members, whom we had assessed as having been entirely spared from disaster, then burst into sudden tears and she began to tell us all of a heartbreaking story of losing a grip on her mother’s arm as they were escaping the wave — her mother was carried out to the sea. Her mother, too, will be buried along with Ruta’s children this Thursday.

The point is — homes can be replaced and businesses can be re-launched. But people are truly precious. And for this reason, all of these ladies in this area have been terribly, deeply and personally affected and need our help.

SPBD is putting together aid packages to deliver to women who have now been literally scattered throughout Samoa. We have already delivered to most a prepaid cell phone so that we can keep in touch with them. Cash grants will be a big part of the package —these should go out later this week.

The logistical issues are significant; however, we have one of the best distribution systems in the entire country and so I am confident that we can pull it off.