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American Samoa still hurting 1 year after tsunami


PAGO PAGO, American Samoa — Life has yet to return to normal a year after a deadly tsunami swept through American Samoa, with some residents still living in tents, destroyed homes dotting the shoreline and traumatic memories still fresh among survivors.

Wednesday marks the anniversary of a magnitude-8.0 earthquake that generated tsunami waves up to 40 feet that quickly swept through the region, killing 194 people, including 34 in American Samoa.

"I wake up at night thinking about it. It’s a nightmare that won’t go away," said Felita To’a, who lost two relatives.

Adding to the angst in the peaceful, tightly-knit territory of about 65,000 residents in the South Pacific is what is perceived as a painfully slow recovery.

"There are a lot of families in Pago Pago still living in tents and it’s not right," said Pulu Ae Jr., a traditional chief, who under Samoan culture is the spokesman for the Pago Pago village council. "I’ve seen the same situation in other villages — people living in tents. What happens if the next disaster comes?"

About 200 homes were severely damaged or destroyed by the giant waves.

In American Samoa, extended families normally live in one home, and it’s not unusual to have six to 10 relatives living in a three-bedroom home. Many families frown on the practice of immediate relatives going out to live on their own instead of staying within the "aiga," or family.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, offered residents whose homes were destroyed two options — a one-time payment of $30,000 to rebuild their own home, or having the government build one for them.

So far, FEMA has built eight homes under its permanent housing pilot program while spending nearly $4 million.

Trudie Iuli-Sala, president of the watchdog group Common Cause American Samoa, said recovery has been too slow and federal and local officials need to do more.

"If you look at Leone, one of the hardest hit villages, not much is done to rebuild homes and improve lives of those who lost everything in the tsunami," she said.

FEMA spokesman Bradley Carroll said the agency has worked closely with Gov. Togiola Tulafono and local officials to assure residents have the resources they need as they continue to recover.

One challenge for FEMA is how remote the territory is, some 2,300 miles south of Hawaii. U.S. mail and goods are mostly shipped through Honolulu.

Carroll said Phase 1 of FEMA’s housing pilot program called for eight homes and 10 additional site preparations and has been completed at a cost of about $3.8 million. Phase 2 will begin next month with the construction of 33 more homes.

He said FEMA staff in Pago Pago communicate regularly with families enrolled in the permanent housing construction program to keep them informed of schedules.

Carroll said approximately 500 emergency tents were provided to families for temporary shelter following the disaster and those families are not required to return the tents, so many remain in use.

So-called "communal land" issues may have also delayed construction in some areas.

Most lands in the territory are owned comunally by extended family and overseen by the high chief of the family. The chief has to sign off on documents, giving approval, before a home can be built. There are also apparently restrictions on home sites immediately adjacent to the shore.

At the village of Seetaga, about five families are still living in tents along a small strip of land next to the water after being told by the local government that they could not rebuild there.

Lemika Pine’s home was destroyed, but he’s having difficulty in locating land to rebuild.

"For now we live in the two FEMA tents and our small shack," Pine said.

By most accounts, the U.S. government has been responsive to the disaster.

As of Sept. 17, FEMA’s individual assistance program had committed more than $37 million to American Samoans. FEMA has pledged an additional $15 million to rebuild public infrastructure and mitigate against future disasters. The U.S. Department of Transportation has awarded $49 billion to rebuild and improve roads, bridges and culverts. The Department of Labor is spending $24.8 on temporary jobs and disaster relief employment, largely to assist in cleanup and restoration efforts.

Installation of a tsunami siren warning system is expected to be completed within six to eight months.

On Wednesday, the territorial government planned a one-year memorial service, which will include the ringing of bells territory-wide at 6:48 a.m, the time when the quake occurred.

The day will be filled with sadness for Taitasi Fitiao, who lost her 6-year old daughter Vaijoresa. When they were overtaken by water, Vaijoresa’s hand slipped away from her mother’s grasp.

"Vaijoresa didn’t know how to swim," Fitiao said with tears rolling down her cheeks. "All I could hear was my daughter’s voice saying, ‘Mom, please.’"

As she battled debris in the water, including tree limbs and wood from destroyed homes, the waves twisted Fitiao under. She said she thought she would surely drown.

She emerged from the water, but her daughter was gone.

"I kept calling out her name … When there was no reply from my daughter, I wanted to die as well," she said.

Vaijoresa’s body was found the next day.

The Samoan people are known for their resilience, they say, but this recovery and healing are taking time.

"The survivors are trying to move on with life," said Felita To’a, standing next to a small memorial for her cousin.

Peter Ah-Kiong lost his sister and niece. They were killed on the way to school in Pago Pago when their car was overtaken by water.

"I visit their graves everyday, sit and talk to them like they are still alive," said Ah-Kiong. "It’s hard to forget and it’s just worse that they were killed in such a tragic way."

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