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Samoa tsunami: Islands assess how quickly they can recover

Samoa was hit harder than American Samoa, but damage is confined to one area. Another challenge will be convincing tourists – a major revenue source – to return.

By Kathy MarksContributor / October 4, 2009

Trucks drive through the flattened village of Lalomanu on Samoa's southeast coast on Saturday, after a deadly tsunami rolled through several South Pacific island nations.

Rick Rycroft / AP

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With little hope of finding more survivors following last week’s earthquake and tidal waves in the South Pacific, governments and aid organizations are assessing the extent of the damage and switching gears the next recovery phase: rebuilding houses and livelihoods.

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The reconstruction process is expected to take months, especially in Samoa, the nation worst hit by the disaster. As well as the challenge of rebuilding entire villages, officials are concerned about the impact of the tsunami on tourism, the country’s main industry.

Nynette Sass, chief executive of the Samoa Hotel Association, said there had been anecdotal reports of mass cancellations. If they proved correct, she told the Associated Press this weekend, “that will be like having a second tsunami on us.”

At least 135 people, including seven foreigners, were killed on Samoa’s main island, Upolu, together with 32 in neighboring American Samoa, a United States territory, and nine in Tonga, an island chain to the south.

In Samoa, the recovery process will be facilitated by the fact that the damage, although extensive, is confined to one area, according to Peter Muller, the regional disaster response adviser to the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Mr. Muller says that a 25-mile strip of Upolu’s southeast coast was devastated, extending 100 to 200 yards inland. “That’s where there’s heavy damage, with some places completely wiped out," he says. "It’s very bad but it’s localized. The moment you move beyond that strip, everything is intact, and the roads have been cleared rapidly, so there’s access to deliver aid and services and evacuate the injured.”

In America Samoa, where the aid effort is being steered by the US Federal Emergency Management Agency, the impact was less extensive. The capital, Pago Pago, suffered the worst destruction, followed by the village of Leone, where an estimated one-third of buildings were leveled. More than 2,000 American Samoans are living in temporary shelters.

Electricity and water supplies have been restored to about half the affected areas in both Samoa and American Samoa. In the latter, generators will supply power to nearly everyone within the next few days, FEMA’s coordinating officer, Ken Tingman, told AP.

In Samoa, 40 villages – albeit some very tiny – were struck by the tidal waves crashing ashore last Tuesday, says Muller. At least four resorts were flattened, along with 20 or more small-scale operations that rented traditional huts, or fale, to tourists. Altogether, the tourism industry has lost about one-quarter of its accommodations on Upolu’s southeast coast.

The coastal stretch, with its white sand beaches, is one of Samoa’s most popular destinations. But Ms. Sass told AP that many tourists did not realize only a relatively small area had been hit. “We’ve had to try to convince people that it’s not the whole country that’s flooded. Infrastructure is still in place and the cleanup is going really fast,” she said.

Muller says locals are already fixing damaged houses, or camping on their land in temporary shelters. However, rebuilding presents not only a logistical but also a psychological challenge. Many Samoans are terrified of returning to the coast, fearing the ocean may once again turn deadly.

What lessons were learned about the tsunami warning system from the Samoa tsunami ? Click here

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The Monitor has compiled a list of relief organizations working in the region. To learn how you can help click here.

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