Samoa: Humanitarian diary

Published: 5 October 2009 0:00 CET

On 29 September, an 8.3 magnitude earthquake, followed by tsunamis, struck Samoa, Tonga and American Samoa, leaving tens of thousands in search of humanitarian assistance. The Samoa Red Cross and its volunteers issued warnings to leave low-lying areas and have since been providing life-saving shelter and other support. The international Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has launched a preliminary emergency appeal seeking 2.9 million Swiss francs to support the Samoa Red Cross Society to assist 15,000 beneficiaries (3,000 families) for 18 months. Rosemarie North is in Samoa and shares a personal account of what she has seen.

Futi is my kind of man. A trained plumber, electrician and painter/decorator with 11 years of experience in Australia, he returned to Samoa two years ago to bring up his children at home. Taking leave from his work as a planning manager at a construction company, Futi (or Footie, as he is known by his football-loving Australian friends) is volunteering for the Samoa Red Cross Society tsunami relief operation.

“Let’s get things going,” he says in a way that means business. If you wanted something done, Futi would be the man you’d turn to. Samoa seems blessed with capable people like Futi. Right now, a bunch of volunteers at headquarters in Apia are sorting donated goods, others are delivering water and clothes, and the final teams are doing door-to-door assessments of what people need.

Although more than 3,500 people left their homes after Tuesday’s tsunami, it seems that many of them have been billeted with friends and relations, or in community buildings such as schools. We have heard of families that have swelled by 40 members.

Hospitality plus

In fact, Samoans have an expansive sense of family. One Samoa Red Cross volunteer, who also helps at Victim Support, told me she was registering people and asking how big their families were. Eighty-nine was a typical answer. She really wanted to know how many lived under in their house. But people see it differently. So of course they opened their homes to their displaced relatives.

But we wonder about the future. Remember the old saying about guests being like fish? After three days, both start smelling. Today, one man told me he’d seen people in the capital, Apia, buying large stocks of food for family members staying with them. That can’t really go on, long-term.

Plus, the extra guests will be putting pressure on water supplies and sanitary facilities, which might already be a bit wobbly after the quake and tsunami.

Early this morning, an Australian water and sanitation specialist flew in from Malaysia to join the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) team, which is now ten-strong. Safe water and decent sewerage will be a major issue. Perhaps we can even upgrade some of the existing systems. Apparently many rural sceptic tanks don’t have any floor; waste soaks directly into groundwater.

Coping mechanism

Another family fled five kilometres inland, to the highest point they could find, where they have set up a substantial camp complete with wooden floorboards. They moved everyone, including an elderly grandmother. They sound pretty keen not to be caught near the coast again. We’ll need to know where they will eventually settle before we can figure out what kind of water system would work.

Douglas Clark, the team leader in IFRC’s Field Assessment and Coordination Team, says, “Any aid really needs to complement the resilience of families and communities. This supportive environment is a coping mechanism that will help Samoan people cope with the tragic events of this week and help them recover.”