Reflections on tsunami ten years on

07 October 2019

Tagaloa Dr Andrew Chan Mow with Solo Aiono & Dr Debbie Ryan.

The 2009 earthquake-tsunami was one of the most devastating disasters in Pacific history. Tagaloa Dr Andrew Chan Mow was among other Samoan medical practitioners from New Zealand that travelled to assist the people of Samoa when it was struck by the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami ten years ago.

The disaster rallied Pacific health practitioners in New Zealand to move swiftly and quickly to provide aid to those most in need.

Reflecting on the devastating tsunami ten years ago, Dr Chan Mow says emotions and memories from that day are still fresh in his mind.

“I went on Samoa with other Samoan doctors from New Zealand. We arrived about a week after it hit and we did not know what to expect.”

“The relative calmness in Apia was in stark contrast to the devastation we encountered in the outer villages of Poutasi, Saleapaga, Lalomanu and Satitoa. We also made a day trip to Manono-tai Island. Landmarks that you remember from visiting the once beautiful beaches had been wiped out, along with any resemblance of village life. Debris, the huge boulders that once lined the seawall and remains of homes were scattered everywhere.”

Dr Chan Mow was part of the of the Mobile Primary Care Response team travelling to villages and surrounding areas affected by the tsunami.

“We were mostly on the road visiting villages and looking for families who had fled to the forest for refuge. This was a joint coordinated effort with teams who were based in the district hospitals. Our base was at the National Hospital in Moto’otua.”

“We were there to assist where we could,” says Dr Chan Mow.

“I remember how dusty and hot it was – the dirt and the sand had dried up in the hot sun and traffic just kicked up more dust along the roads. Burnt grass and foliage along the coast revealed how far inland the height the waves had reached. It stopped just short of the uphill inland road heading towards Lalomanu District Hospital. In Poutasi, the sea had reached beyond the visible forest line several hundred meters inland.“

“The catastrophe, trauma and devastation was heart breaking. The village of Lalomanu had been badly hit by the tsunami. Entire villages were destroyed. It was hard, but at the same time, you had to keep moving forward.”

An unprecedented outpouring of generosity from the international community followed.

“My lasting memories will always be how resilient the Samoan people are, especially survivors of the tsunami. The families who had camped out in the bush had endured so much and yet remained humble and grateful for any assistance they received.”

“The efforts of the hard working doctors and nurses in Samoa who had worked for several days without a break was incredible, as was the amazing response from overseas-based Samoan medical professionals, including a Samoan anaesthetist from Canada who just turned up.”

“The huge impact of the 2009 tsunami has stayed with me. As a doctor you will never forget seeing such devastation, and especially the families who were deeply affected. We did everything we could to help with the recovery effort.”

The tsunami was generated by an 8.3 magnitude earthquake that devastated parts of Samoa, claiming 184 lives that day in Samoa, American Samoa and Tonga. It was one of the deadliest disasters in recorded Pacific history.

The tsunami caused damage to most of the Southern part in the island of Upolu in Samoa and also American Samoa and Tonga. Ten years on, reconstruction is on-going but the ruptures of trauma and devastation remain vital in grief recovery, especially for those directly impacted by the devastation.

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