Notes from the Field

Tsunami Hits Pacific Islands

October 7, 2009

Its clear blue waters, lush greenery, and sunny skies provide a tranquil setting for daily life in the many islands of the South Pacific. However, this natural beauty can be deceiving – the Pacific Island Nations are prone to some of the world’s worst natural hazards – cyclones, tsunamis, droughts, floods, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions.

I first received reports that a magnitude 8.3 earthquake had struck the region of the Samoa Islands on the morning of Tuesday, September 29, when I got  an early call from a colleague in Washington, D.C. For this small island nation with an estimated population of 158,000, the earthquake had triggered a tsunami that killed 142 people, with others still missing. The Samoan Red Cross estimates that 3,500 people are under temporary shelter, with many others staying with relatives. The Samoan government’s current estimate of damage to infrastructure, public, and private properties is around $142 million.

After consulting with USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) office, I set about contacting the national disaster managers in the countries issued with tsunami warnings as listed by the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii. Reaching Samoa was the most critical, as they were in the thick of evacuating people as destructive waves battered the island. Cook Islands reported only minor impact from the tsunami, Tonga was unreachable, and Fiji was activating its tsunami response plan with public warnings reaching the communities through radio, TV, and mobile phone networks. In Fiji, the Ministry of Education closed all schools in low-lying, coastal areas.

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Photo from Asia Foundation disaster management training course.

For The Asia Foundation, this catastrophic event was a real-time test. Since 1995, with USAID/OFDA support, we have conducted the longest-running disaster management training programs in the Pacific. The strength and credibility of the training courses are well-known in the region, and many groups have adopted procedures from these trainings into national operational procedures and arrangements to better prepare for and respond to emergencies and disasters. Since participants who have undergone training work within key response agencies and organizations, they are well positioned to implement effective response to such events as well as improve and modify disaster plans in accordance with their country’s needs.

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Photo from Asia Foundation disaster management training course.

Both the Secretary-General of the Samoa Red Cross Society and the Commissioner of the Samoa Fire and Emergency Services Authority have been trained under The Asia Foundation and USAID/OFDA program, as have the Directors of the national disaster management offices in Samoa, Tonga, Cook Islands, and Fiji. In Samoa, the Director of the Disaster Management Office, the Commissioner of Fire and Emergency Services, and the Secretary General of the Red Cross put their effective management skills to great use during this catastrophic event resulting in rapid and effective response.

Today, eight days later, the focus is on recovering from the tsunami and rebuilding and rehabilitating communities affected.

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Photo from Asia Foundation disaster management training course.

Over the last several years, our affiliate organization, Give2Asia, has worked to identify local and regional organizations in Asia that need private funding to carry out important social and humanitarian work – oftentimes disaster recovery. We worked particularly closely following the disastrous 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, sending more than $7 million in support, and more recently to send support totaling $14 million following the devastating 2008 China earthquake. Now, with the typhoon season beginning in the Pacific Ocean, the Foundation’s network of 18 offices throughout Asia is able to provide immediate information about which local organizations need help to bring longer-term recovery.

Read more about the current crises. For more information about the Foundation’s ongoing disaster management training, visit The Asia Foundation’s website.

Kathryn Hawley is The Asia Foundation’s Program Director for the USAID/Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) Pacific Disaster Risk Management Program and is based in Fiji.

View all posts by Kathryn E. Hawley | Bio

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