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Editorial | Island Voices

Recovery is slow for Samoan residents

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    Flooding and devastation are shown in this Sept. 29, 2009, photo after a magnitude-8.0 earthquake hit the Samoa region, generating tsunami waves of up to 40 feet that killed 194 people, 34 of them in American Samoa.
  • 2009

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 marked 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 and 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.

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.


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