The Samoa Tsunami: Dodging a Bullet of Epic Proportions

Waves crashing on a starlit beach. A rustle of palms. Then the moon sets and the stars disappear. A slanting beam of early morning light tracks through the window and then across the room to fall directly on my face. I flip over, turning toward the cool and shady side of the bed, enjoying the opportunity to sleep in a few minutes longer. Ofu island is the secret paradise of the South Pacific. But it was an adventure to get here.

We flew overnight across the Pacific to the town of Apia, then took two puddle jumper prop planes to successively smaller islands. Then we made our way to a small village where we hitched a ride with a local fisherman across the final stretch of ocean to arrive here at one of the world’s most spectacular beaches. Snowy and cold Colorado seemed like it was a lifetime away. I kept my eyes closed. The warm overnight breeze had died down and the palm trees were still and quiet. All I could hear were the exotic songs of tropical birds and the rhythmic pounding of deep ocean surf onto the reef outside.

We were the only guests in the small family run Vaoto Lodge, the only accommodation available on the island. It was 7:10am on September 29th, 2009.

I was drifting back to sleep. A low rumbling started slowly, blending in with the whumping sound of the surf out on the reef, and the gentle swaying of the bed was reminiscent of a bunk berth on the open sea. Hmmm. Why is the bed rocking? I remember being puzzled by this strange half-dream. Then I heard a loud crash, my eyes were wide open and I was trying to orient myself. Another huge crash and now the bed was shaking. I jumped out of bed but I couldn’t stand up. Then another tremendous crash, coming from directly above us and I suddenly remembered the vertical cliff that looms over the lodge. Now that was a sound I recognized from my climbing days. That was the sound of an avalanche of rockfall as it is bearing down on you.

My wife Cheri was now sitting straight up, looking toward the ceiling and recoiling at the noise of the crash. She locked eyes with me and yelled “Earthquake!” Then another huge crash and this one was bearing down on us.I stood up but then fell again as the ground rocked wildly beneath my feet. I saw my backpack fall over onto my teva sandals. I pushed the pack out of the way, grabbed the sandals and ran barefoot out of the room as fast as I could. The ground was still shaking and I looked back over my shoulder to see car size boulders crashing down the cliff toward us! I also noticed Cheri wasn’t running next to me. She was just outside the room and appeared puzzled that I was running toward the ocean in a big earthquake. She didn’t realize the loud crashing sound was coming from rocks tumbling down off the cliff. I pointed repeatedly at the mountain above us and yelled at the top of my voice

Huge boulders were splintering apart and debris was cartwheeling down toward the lodge. The lush jungle covering the cliff was slowing the momentum of the rockfall, and the trees were shaking violently like a T-Rex was running through them. Cheri ducked and ran up to me, and we made our way to the edge of the beach. Ben, Deb and their daughter Rain, the owners of the lodge, had run for cover there as well. I stood there transfixed for a second. Everything had happened so fast but it felt like we were moving in slow motion. As the shaking ended, time seemed to suddenly catch up and resume normal speed again. I looked up and saw large plumes of dust rising from the cliffs and suddenly the big blue ocean seemed eerily quiet. We all looked at each other and I knew they were thinking the same thing I was.

We need to get to high ground. Cheri and I decided it was safe to run back into the lodge to grab a few essentials including our passports, cash, a water bottle and my first aid kit. My camera was locked up. I didn’t have time to dig around for the key so I left it. We quickly jumped in the back of Ben’s pickup truck along with their 5 dogs and a cat and raced out the island’s only dirt road up to a low pass between the island’s high points. The pass was about 150 feet above sea level so we felt pretty safe there. Then we waited and turned on the transistor radio.

No mention yet of the earthquake and no talk of Tsunami warnings. Ten minutes went by and everything was quiet. Deb looked at me. Do you think we overreacted? How long do you think we should wait? An hour? Five hours?

Still nothing on the radio. I went to get one of the dogs that wandered back down the hill when I saw Ben stand up in the bed of the pickup and point toward the reef. The entire ocean was beginning to act strangely. Whirlpools were developing far offshore and the water was being sucked out away from the beach. Ofu’s sister island, Olosega was directly in front of us. The sea beyond our reef was turning into a fast moving river rushing backwards and swelling up around the the huge volcanic peak of Olesega like it was a small stone in a big river. Then like a slow motion movie, all that water came rushing back in. It was surreal to watch. I couldn’t believe this was really happening.

We were high on the cliff so we couldn’t see the beach through the trees very well, but we could see the rush of water heading into the beach. Then we heard the splintering sound of palm trees being crushed and watched as they flipped backwards. After a few more seconds, the water drew back toward the sea but now the turquoise blue water was brown and full of coconuts and debris. The water within the reef sloshed around another 15 minutes and then it was over.

Five locals who lived in the village down near the coast came running up the hill, their clothes soaked to their chests. They were caught off guard by the Tsunami and ran up the slope but couldn’t move quickly enough. They all grabbed onto palm trees and were buffeted by the wave and debris. When the water receded they ran up here to the pass. From here we could only see the north side of the island and feared the worst for our place on the south side. We drove back down and saw where the wave had washed over the road, but by a stroke of good fortune, the gentle hand of God or dumb luck, the Tsunami was only 10-15 feet high in front of Vaoto Lodge and it didn’t cross over the tall sandy berm between the lodge and the sea.

Our island’s power supply went out and we were cut off from all the emergency communications about the Tsunami except for a few cell phone calls from Deb’s relatives across the straight in Pago Pago town. The wave had been far more destructive there. Pago Pago, the capital of American Samoa, sits at the end of a deep harbor.The huge wave had been funneled and constricted through the harbor like a fire hose.By the time it reached the town it had lurched up to 30 feet high and it pummeled through everything in it’s path. Last night we stayed at a small hotel called the Mailiu Mai near Pago Pago and there had been heavy damage there. If we had delayed our trip to Ofu one more day, we would have been sleeping there this morning.

Surveying the damage.

Surveying the damage.

We drove the pickup truck over to the small village of Ofu which sits on a ledge above the coast. A few low lying structures including the power plant were flooded but that was the extent of the damage. People were wandering around cleaning up but nobody was seriously hurt. A few people said they would be sleeping outside high on the hill tonight as a precaution. We helped clear rocks and debris off the dirt road but there was little else that we could do. We relied on the transistor radio to get updates from Pago Pago and Apia. Internet and phones were cut off. All transportation between the islands had been halted. Updates from the other islands were sporadic. Most of the information was in Samoan which we couldn’t understand. But it was slowly becoming clear that we were extremely lucky. The earthquake had measured 8.2 on the Richter scale, as powerful as the famous 1906 earthquake that destroyed the city of San Francisco. Most of the south facing beach areas of the Samoan Islands were hit by huge waves. We were on a south facing beach too, but a quirk in the geometry of the islands had saved us from the full force of the tsunami.

We wandered down to the beach area. The turquoise lagoon was cloudy with debris, but the wilderness character of the beach remained the same. It looked as if a tropical storm had battered the coast but there was very little damage to the palm trees or the coral. A warm breeze began to rustle through the trees. It was a brilliant sunny day with puffy little clouds. Powder blue waves were crashing hard onto the reef.

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Part of the lure of paradise is the sense that you are cut off from the rest of the world. You are on a tiny speck of land surrounded by the vast blue ocean. The emptiness of the sea protects and buffers you from the big crazy world out there. Walking along Ofu’s white sand beach, it still looks like paradise here. And we certainly are cut off from the world. But it’s an uneasy feeling now. The ocean doesn’t feel like our protector. There is something sinister to its beauty. It feels like the ocean is jealous of this tiny speck of land and wants to reclaim it. And there is nowhere for us to go.

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