By Rob Tranter, First Assistant Director General, Pacific Division, AusAID
Two and a half years ago in September 2009, the Tavana family from Saleaumua village in Samoa saw their entire life swept away by one of the worst natural disasters to ever hit the small Pacific nation.
I remember being at the Crisis Centre in Canberra as news of an earthquake that had just struck off the coast of Samoa came flooding in. The 8.3 magnitude quake triggered a huge tsunami that ripped through the southern Samoan island of Upolu.
Saleaumua, on the south coast of Upolu, was one of the worst hit villages. It was completely flattened by the disaster. And while the Tavanas saved all members of their family, they lost their home and all of their possessions while fleeing from the advancing waves.
The giant wall of water also swept through neighbouring Tonga and American Samoa, leaving devastation in its wake. An estimated 144 people lost their lives in the disaster and a further 5,300 people were left without homes. Critical roads and communications systems were demolished.
During those first few weeks, I helped coordinate Australia’s support in response to the tsunami . The AusAID crisis team sprang into action, and I’m proud to say Australia was among the first to send assistance to the region. At the height of our humanitarian response, 108 Australian emergency and medical personnel were on the ground in Samoa. They performed 101 surgical operations, 171 field medical treatments, 1,050 emergency department presentations, and 22 medical evacuations.
The Government of Samoa led an impressive plan for recovery in the aftermath of the tsunami,coordinating with development partners and local communities to meet the needs of Samoans. This highlights the importance collaboration in the event of humanitarian disasters to achieve a rapid, lasting recovery. I saw the remarkable results of these efforts during my visit to Samoa in March this year. In place of the utter devastation of two and a half years ago was a transformed community—a testament to the enduring spirit of the Samoan people.
Australian funding has helped rehabilitate the Lalomanu Highway in Samoa’s south, along with support from the World Bank and New Zealand. This important stretch of road has given resettled communities better access to schools and medical treatment. I also noticed Samoa’s tourism businesses are up and running again, stimulated by a nine per cent increase in tourist arrivals in the past year.
During my visit I met Maria Sefo, the Principal of Lalomanu Primary School. Maria showed me the school’s library facility, which has been dedicated to the memory of six-year-old Australian tsunami victim, Clea Salavert. Australian support for the school has helped more children attend classes from relocated communities. It also provided furniture for students and new drinking fountains to give them access to safe drinking water.
We provided $500,000 to Caritas Australia for recovery and relief operations including rebuilding houses. A total of 70 families from seven villages along Samoa’s south coast (including the Tavana family from Saleaumana) have had their homes rebuilt under the reconstruction project. It is clear that Australian aid has made a significant contribution in Samoa, but the situation is far from simple.
The emotional scars of the earthquake and tsunami run deep. The Tavanas are unable to live in their new home, located at the site of their old home, because it is too close to the sea that swallowed their village on that fateful day. They continue to stay in accommodation much further back from the water and while they plan to return to their normal lives one day, two and a half years after the tsunami, they are still not ready. A similar story is echoed throughout Saleaumua – indeed, across the country – with more families who had traditionally lived by the sea moving further inland.
While Samoa’s reconstruction efforts have achieved remarkable results, a sign of the resilience of the Samoan people, healing will take a long time. To help the healing process, Australia’s assistance to Caritas helped train over 500 youth and church leaders in counselling. This would enable them to support their communities in managing the psychological impact of the tsunami.
Recovery is more than immediate humanitarian aid, and more than building houses and repairing roads – recovery in Samoa is an ongoing process that needs the commitment and support of partners like us. Australia is committed to continue working with the Samoan Government and with the development banks to help Samoa and its people get back on their feet.
About the author: Rob Tranter
Rob Tranter is AusAID’s First Assistant Director General, Pacific Division, the Agency’s senior executive manager with responsibility for Australia’s aid to Papua New Guinea and the Pacific islands. Rob is based at AusAID’s head office in Canberra.
Since joining AusAID in 1996, Rob’s career has focused largely around Australia’s aid programs to PNG and the Pacific islands region. He has worked in a range of senior roles, including heading up the agency’s Pacific islands and Human Resources branches. Rob has also served overseas as an Australian diplomat in Port Vila and Jakarta.
Rob started his public service career in 1992 as a policy analyst with the Commonwealth Departments of Transport and Communication, and later worked as an adviser to the House of Representatives committee on infrastructure reform. Rob was born in Brisbane and holds degrees in economics (B.Econ, UQ) and international development (PGrad Dip. Development, ANU).