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Surviving a tsunami: Dealing with disaster: Lessons from the Samoa tsunami 29.09.09

 by Sharon Hakim

Title: Surviving a tsunami: Dealing with disaster: Lessons from the Samoa tsunami 29.09.09
Author : Jowitt, A., Faasisila, J., & Dudley, W.

Reviewed by Sharon Hakim

Review Written by: Sharon Hakim

Interviewee and Co-Author: Jackie Faasisila

Authors: Jowitt, A., Faasisila, J., & Dudley, W.
Title: Surviving a tsunami: Dealing with disaster: Lessons from the Samoa tsunami 29.09.09.  Publication details: Auckland: Read Pacific Ltd, 2011
Number of pages: 49
ISBN: 978-0-473-19629-5

“Institutions learn from studies, communities learn from stories”
- John McKnight

In September of 2009 the island nation of Samoa was hit with one of the most devastating natural disasters in its history, a tsunami that killed 149 people, injured countless others, and left miles of destruction in its wake. Traditionally, Samoan culture and lifestyle views the sea as a source livelihood; that it might “turn on them” was a particularly harrowing thought and shook many small villages to their core. In the aftermath of the tsunami, fear motivated people to pick up and move inland. As the nation focused on rebuilding and recovering, many stories surfaced: of loved ones lost, of heroic actions, of ambiguity and fear, of lives changed forever. The book reviewed here, “Surviving a Tsunami: Dealing with Disaster,” draws on these stories — those of resiliency and those of destruction. 

“Surviving a Tsunami” is intended as a practical guidebook, suited for community members and students alike. Its goal is to spread awareness of tsunami risk and more importantly capture the lessons learned from the tragic tsunami. The book is about disaster prevention education, but also highlights how Samoan communities “dealt” with the destruction and death left in the aftermath of the tsunami. It combines easily accessible scientific information about tsunami formation and actual photographs of the tsunami’s destruction with the voices of survivors who describe the sights, sounds and smells of the tsunami on that fateful day. These real stories are intended to ensure that readers, young and old, know how to prepare and respond to any impending natural disaster. The hope is that these first person accounts will stick with the readers, and motivate them to take preventative actions in their own communities. 

The stories and personal accounts used in this book came from 31 video interviews conducted in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami. One of the major themes that emerged from those interviews was the need to insure that community members understood the critical connection between a major earthquake and a tsunami occurrence (Dudley, Whitney, Faasisila, Fonolua, Jowitt, & Chan-Kou, 2009). Time is critical; in Samoa as in other tsunami effected areas, the act of waiting to see a “large wave” before reacting unfortunately led to many preventable deaths and injuries. With that in mind, the personal accounts in this book help the reader understand that they need to react quicker, and plan for the worst-case scenario following any sizable earthquake. 

“Surviving a Tsunami” warns children and other community members not to believe a tsunami will never come. “Don’t worry whether a quake is large or small, run inland quickly” is one of its most important lessons. These qualitative accounts document the sights and sounds of an imminent tsunami, as well as some of the internal thought processes of the people who experienced it. These real stories can be credible and powerful in disaster preparedness education/prevention efforts.

As a reviewer, I appreciated the dual-focus of this book - disaster prevention education and the process by which Samoan communities “dealt” with the destruction and death left in the aftermath of the tsunami. The actions that individuals took after the tsunami highlight the strengths of the collective, Samoan culture. I spoke to one of the book co-authors, Jackie Faasisila, specifically about this aspect of the book. Although your community may not be in danger of experiencing a tsunami, the lessons learned about resilience and the role of culture can be useful to a diverse range of communities as they face various other natural disasters.


Describe for readers the circumstances that led to the writing of this book?
Our goal in writing the book was to help keep the experience of the disaster in cultural memory so the people who died would not have died in vain. Three weeks after the tsunami, we went around [the disaster stricken area] with a UNESCO team of high powered scientists, “tsunami-chasers” if there’s such a word — who go around to places who have experienced tsunamis and look at the geology, which buildings survived, the resilience of plants, etc. They do very technical reports to governments and agencies. Our team, myself and the other two co-authors of this book Angela and Walter, conducted video interviews with survivors in an attempt to highlight their individual stories. What we wanted to do was combine those two things, the technical knowledge and the survivor stories, into a book that someone could hopefully pickup and learn something from.

What inspired this project? How did you make it happen?
Well one of the things that people feel after a disaster, well that we certainly felt in Samoa after the tsunami, was “what do I do? I need to do something. How can I help?” Personally, I spent the first few days sorting clothes and then giving those clothes away. Afterwards I went to USP (University of the South Pacific) and learned that a team of international scientists was staying there, preparing to study the tsunami and its effects. I went to the meeting the next day, where there were both outsiders and Samoans as part of a government effort to look into the disaster and its impacts, and volunteered with the “social impact team.” (There were seven or eight different research teams formed during that meeting). In fact it turned out that there were two types of social impact research teams, the first was focused on a needs assessment, and the second, where we fit in, was documenting survivor stories. That’s where Angela (other co-author, also at USP) and I started working with Walter, who had come from Hawaii, and who has done work with survivor stories before as part of the Pacific Tsunami Museum.

What was the process of conducting interviews like?
Once we were out in the communities, we approached people we knew, or people who had been working with the Red Cross, and asked them to share their stories. It was really early on, about three weeks after the tsunami hit, and people were very gracious. There wasn’t anyone who said “no” to our interview requests. And they’re sitting in their makeshift shelters, or somewhere else, and they were just happy that their stories were being told. I think that’s a Samoan culture thing. The way Samoa deals with death and disaster is talking.  When a loved one dies, people tell stories. They tell stories and it helps them move through the grief. Samoa doesn’t have a great number of feeling words, but they were willing to describe the events and how surprised they were at the things that happened. So I think that the people talking to us was cathartic for them. The way that we set up the interviews, there weren’t questions. I approached someone, explained what we were doing, and then when they agreed, I simply said “Tell us what happened.”  Some of them talked for a long time, some of them talked for a short time. Then at the end I could ask follow-up questions. We interviewed people from ages 10 to 83. Because of the small size of Samoa, our connections to the Red Cross and the government disaster relief effort, and our [two of the author’s] work in the effected communities before the disaster, we weren’t “unknown” to community members, which definitely helped.

What impressions did you take away from the interviews, from talking to the survivors first hand?
One of the things that I was very struck by that I think again, is very Samoan, is the fact that afterwards the people just moved. Lots of things were destroyed, the village of Saleapaga was the one we worked in the most. It has very high mountains, so the geology was in its favor - the waves come and they go as far as they can until they meet resistance.  Most everything was destroyed between the sea and the mountains. However, the village of Saleapaga had plantation land, and their land was up on the mountains, and so they basically just packed up (well, they had nothing to pack up), they walked up with the clothes on their back and started living in their plantations.  The communities themselves are still in tact, they just resettled elsewhere. And they could move together easily because they all had land, it’s all communal land. It wasn’t like “oh we have to find a place.” In Samoa, the village had land so they just moved, where this wasn’t possible in other countries. And as time progressed they salvaged what they could, but they immediately started rebuilding.

Do you think the people displaced by the tsunami will move back to the sea eventually?
Interestingly, I don’t think that the majority of people who have moved inland will move back down. Mothers especially were concerned; they did not want their children to die at school. For example, in Saleapaga [a village struck by the 2009 tsunami], the school building was not totally destroyed, but the people vowed they would not send their young children to school again unless one was built inland. It’s really amazing, even six months after, you go up to the mountains and it’s a village. There are churches, big houses, small houses, schools. The tourist activities have moved back down to the beach, but that’s basically it. 

What are the lessons people took away from this experience?  What lessons can other communities take away?
To move inland quickly; don’t wait. Samoa had only ten minutes [between earthquake and the tsunami]. Nature is powerful, disasters happen, they can happen to you.  One of the reasons we wanted to do this book is because in Samoa we did not have a tsunami in cultural memory. If it’s a cyclone, we know what to do, because so many of our citizens have seen a cyclone. But the last major tsunami was in 1917. The next year was the Spanish influenza, the big epidemic, so Samoa lost a lot of people who had lived through it.  So people didn’t think that it could happen here, to us. After the recent tsunamis internationally, a new Pacific warning system was in place and we had had tsunami simulation drills that the disaster management people had organized, but the feeling was still “it won’t happen to us.” This was especially true of the older people. With the book, we wanted the stories we collected to keep the experience in the cultural memory.

How did the traditional, collective Samoan culture play a role in the disaster recovery?
Samoa’s culture is very strong. This was a disaster that touched everyone, even though in certain places, like Apia [the capital city], it didn’t even look like an earthquake occurred.  But because everyone knew people, and had extended families, it directly effected the entire country and everyone wanted to reach out and do whatever they could for their family, for their church, for their village. It’s a small country. So when five people are missing, you know who those five people are. So the size led to a more personal quality. It was just a feeling of “we need to help” even though it didn’t look like our lives had been directly effected. So that as the collective culture coming through. 

One of the most common comments we got from people during interviews was, “Thank God it didn’t happen at night.” So people were very thankful and kept their faith in God, even in the face of the disaster. Faith and resilience are things Samoans have shown in other disasters, like cyclones; after it passes, people pick up their lives and move on. There’s nothing else to do. The environment of the islands too is so resilient. The first time I drove through the tsunami stricken area I thought “never again” would this look like it did before, but a lot of it has grown back.

Interesting. What do you think the lasting effect of this tsunami is on the Samoan people?
It definitely effected different age groups differently. During the storm, the elderly were the most resistant - when the storm was coming, they did not want to flee. They said, “take the children and go.” The people that had the greatest fear were mothers with small children, they were so scared for their kids. Even today, the children see a large wave and they still say “tsunami.” Although the fear gradually dissipated after the tsunami, it’s still there. I think that’s what happens after any natural disaster, which is why our book is so important - not to keep the fear, but to keep the awareness. 


Dudley, W. C., Whitney, R., Faasisila, J., Fonolua, S., Jowitt, A. and Chan-Kau, M. (2011).     Learning from the victims: New physical and social science information about tsunamis from victims of the September 29, 2009 event in Samoa and American Samoa.  Earth-Science Reviews. 107,1-2, 201-206.  doi: 10.1016/j.earscirev.2011.03.005



Sharon Hakim

Sharon Hakim is a doctoral student at Wichita State University, and can be reached at

Co-author and interviewee, Jackie Faasisila is the Academic Director of School for International Training’s Study Abroad in Samoa which is hosted at the University of the South Pacific Alafua Campus in Samoa. Ms Faasisila can be reached at

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