Saturday, March 26, 2011

Adam's Story Part 3: The Aftermath

With the story of the Japanese tsunami in the news, I keep mentally going back to the tsunami that I witnessed on the island in September of 2009. I've made a couple of entries on this topic before. But I've never gotten the chance to tell what I did in the days following. As longtime readers of this blog may remember, there was a very little posting by me in the month or so after the tsunami. I had been a bit busy, to say the least.

My interview the following morning with Channel 7 didn't happen. The person they talked to in Western took up all of their time and the Skype connection was pretty terrible that day anyhow. I think if I had gotten to do the interview, it mostly would have been me yelling "WHAT?" over the Internet static.

I didn't go to work for several days after the tsunami. Oh I worked, but I didn't go to work. Joey had somehow made a connection with someone in the Archive department of the UK branch of the Associated Press. I never quite found out why it was going there. But anyway, I spent the next several days driving around the island and filming the destruction. That's where all of the pictures in this album came from.

It was a weird, sad, but exciting experience. Instead of my usual job where I sat in front of a computer all day and went out to stores to film ads about once a week, I was venturing all over the island, meeting people and collecting their stories. A pastor's wife had just barely escaped up the mountain before the wave crushed the inside of the church. A matai (village chief) had risked his life by driving up and down the main road of his seaside village with a bullhorn warning everyone about the coming wave before finally getting to safety himself. Maliu Mai Resort had been hit, but was in good enough shape to reopen after about a week. At the remote village of Fagamalo, at the tail end of the island's main road, I saw the military come in and drop off supplies and tents for everyone to live in, and the village matai divvy them up amongst the affected families. Things everywhere were, smashed, broken, and dirty. Some places only had foundations left, something I saw when I did a mission trip to places hit by Hurricane Katrina.

Then there was Poloa. The village of Poloa, located on the very western tip of the island, had been hit worst of all. So badly, in fact, that they had shut it off from outsiders and you had to get special permission to visit. I met the matai, who was an elderly man who spoke through a tulafale or "talking chief" (spokesperson) who sat beside him the entire time. In exchange for me interviewing him and getting his story out, he would allow me to film the village. He, like the rest of his village, had relocated to the village at the top of the mountain for the foreseeable future. Most of the villagers were now living in a Red Cross station. I kept in mind all that I had learned about Samoan customs and higher ranking people, the rules about sitting and all that, and the interview went very well. I was granted access to the village.

Poloa was, as someone had forewarned me, a ghost town. As if a symbol of the entire village, even the welcome sign at the front had been washed off of its post and was laying on the ground. Almost nothing was spared. Most of the village was in splinters. The destruction was so bad that I really couldn't tell you how many houses had been there before. Everything was just rubble. A cinderblock shower laid on its side in the middle of everything. The only real building still fully standing was the church (interpret that however you like). Even then, the inside was a mess. All of the pews were thrown together in a giant heap. The pulpit was upside-down and most of the windows were broken. Bingo cards were scattered around and bingo chips were spilled everywhere.

A few people were still walking around. The one that I really remember was a guy sitting in the driver's seat of a ruined car, as if he was going to start it and drive away. He waved to me like nothing was wrong. Maybe he was traumatized. Maybe he lived there now. I'll never really know.

After that came the school. Like the church, everything was piled up into one or two heaps. Unlike the church, the walls were gone and there was a good bit of roof/ceiling missing. Books, computers, chairs, younameit, were everywhere. A lone cat sat up meowing desperately at the top of a bank on the mountainside, as if it were just as traumatized as the guy in the car.

It's comforting to know that all of the kids from that school got out of the village OK. In fact, there was only one casualty for all of Poloa. I think one of my few regrets about my time on the island was that never visited Poloa again to see how it had progressed. I wouldn't blame anyone if they never moved back.

I was on what BlueSky called a "residential" internet speed back then, before the island was hooked up to the fiber optic cable, so it was incredibly slow. Something like 100 Kb/s, so I really had a very small pipe to get all of the footage that I had through to the AP. I knew that this would take a LOT of time, so I felt like any time when it wasn't uploading was time wasted. Every day right after I woke up, I'd start uploading footage and pictures to the AP server. I'd make sure a decent-sized file had started uploading before I left, and I'd start a new one as soon as I got back. And of course, another one needed to be uploading when I went to bed.

At one point, I needed to call into the AP office that I was sending these to. Unable to get to them directly, or even the AP HQ, I finally called their Honolulu bureau and explained my situation. The person I talked to there was very helpful and very sympathetic to the situation on the island, and he was able to connect me to the New York bureau, who connected me to the DC bureau, who connected me to the London bureau, where I left a message to the guy that I was supposed to talk to, because he wasn't there. He got back to me later.

As I mentioned in the first entry about the tsunami, the radio stations were knocked off the air and one was brought back on in a very limited capacity (mostly the harbor area) on a small generator for less than half a day at a time. Both of the TV channels that I was in charge of were out for more than a week as well. I spent a bit too much time wondering if I would have a job for much longer.

At about the end of the second day, we managed to get the WVUV-FM broadcasting in my part of the island again from its secondary transmitter on top of the mountain near Pava'ia'i. It was a strange, bare-bones kind of broadcasting, with almost nothing but our on-air talent giving out much-needed emergency information, but it was a big back toward normalcy. It sounded like "the voice of the resistance."

There was a lot of PTSD going around. I had at least one friend who was terrified to go anywhere near the water for months, which was pretty rough, considering that she had to drive along it for more than a mile during her daily commute. Another family picked up everything and climbed up the mountain on the one-month anniversary of the wave, because the expected it to come back that day. We ran ads urging people to seek counseling for more than a year.

Finally, the healing began. People who had lost their homes were given FEMA tents and supplies. They began the slow, slow process of applying for FEMA aid, which was still causing headaches when I left. The Hawaii National Guard was sent to the islands to help. Military helicopters dotted the skies occasionally. One of the world's largest planes made a landing at Pago Pago Airport and dropped off giant generators and much more. They and the ones that came later restored power to places that had lost it due to one of the island's two power plants getting the brunt of the wave. Ruined homes were demolished, and some were replaced. The island's many churches pitched in, including my own. I spent a single afternoon helping to demolish what was left of a home. I would have done more, but thankfully, I still had a full-time job. The wrecked bridge in Leone was replaced with a quick fix, and later a real bridge. The Pago Pago post office added hundreds of new P.O. boxes to replace those that were lost at the Leone location. Both radio stations came back on the air full-time. They started playing music again, then commercials, starting with stores announcing that they were open again. Pago Plaza, the building where I worked that lost its entire bottom floor, was completely reconstructed and had several new and old clients moved in before I left.

I did just a few more interviews. One with the LA Times where everything I contributed was cut in favor of quotes from someone that I had introduced the author to who had seen the actual wave. Another was with my college's newscast that I had once been a part of. I was glad to see that the remembered the interview when I visited the school just last month.

After about a week, we moved both of my TV channels' main computers down to the cable headend (the main control building for the cable system) in Tafuna and hooked them into the system directly, as the cables running to the station had been broken in several places. I updated it daily by carrying down a hard drive with the next day's schedule and any new programming or commercials on it and dumping it all into the machines. It stayed that way for months. Back in the station, everything, and I mean everything was powered by a massive series of extension cords hooked up to a single generator. A lot of tripping, stuck doors, unplugged equipment, and sweatiness (due to there being no A/C) occurred , but after seeing the destruction on so much of the island, I really couldn't complain. Eventually, the regular power was restored and the cable system fixed.

And yet not everything has really healed. When I left the island, most of Leone was still just flat land with only a few houses. Lots of families were still living in FEMA tents, to the best of my knowledge. Both the replacement power plant and post office were still in the early planning stages. While the tsunami alert system had a solid date set for completion, it still didn't exist yet. Plenty of buildings remained untouched and would probably stay that way for some time. One of the most glaring examples is the Pago Pago Community Center, which still had a boat and a shipping container still sitting inside it.

It was a weird experience. I'm glad I got to write about it.
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