Former Head of State recalls tsunami devastation

The former Head of State, His Highness Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Efi, the man who was at the helm of the nation in one of its darkest hours, said the devastation of the 2009 tsunami made him a climate change activist. 

On the 29th of September 2009, an 8.1 magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of Samoa, triggering a massive tsunami with waves of up to 14 metres.

It destroyed 20 villages on Upolu’s south coast and 143 were killed in Samoa. The disaster also caused severe damage in American Samoa, Tonga and French Polynesia.

More than 300 people were injured, 5000 people were affected and 3000 were left without a roof over their heads. 

Samoa is marking the 10th year anniversary of the tragedy at the end of the week.

During an interview with the Samoa Observer, His Highness Tui Atua recalled traveling to the south coast just hours after the tsunami struck in the early morning. 

He said he was on his way to a morning walk when he heard the news on the radio.

His Highness Tui Atua and then Acting Prime Minister Tuu'u Anasi’i Leota left Apia and arrived on the south coast around noon, he recalls. the scale of the destruction was immediately apparent. 

“It was quite a traumatic scene to see when we arrived there,” he said. 

They were directed to make their way to the hospital, he recalls:

“I was trying to steel myself to be calm because I was beginning to realise the sort of spectacle I was going to confront. 

“People were being brought in and some were very badly hurt, some were dying and others had died.”

He said the families crowding around their dead loved ones impacted him the most.

In an address His Highness Tui Atua gave to the New Zealand Families Commission Pasikifa Families Fono just two months after the tsunami, he remembered the mood as “heart-wrenchingly raw.”

“In the immediate aftermath of the tsunami there are many images of the strength of family, of the pain of parents who have lost children and children who have lost parents," he said. 

“But nothing as heart-wrenchingly raw and vivid as the sight of a mother, at the call of a new body being found, rushing over to see if it is hers and on realising that it is, oblivious to the stench of the rotting body, hugs and kisses it as if it were new-born.”

At the time, the priority immediately turned to trying to help. He devoted himself to bringing in international support, either on his own or directing them to the channels managing the disaster relief effort. 

He spent time on the ground in the worst affected villages in Aleipata where majority of the casualties were. 

His Highness Tui Atua said during that time he prayed often for the strength to be a leader:

“We all face adversity sometimes in our lives. We tried to organise ourselves to be helpful, and we tried to ensure we were concerned and constructive rather than being busy bodies or that we become less help and more hindrance. This is something you have to look out for.

“I prayed that I would be strong and that I would encourage other people as well.”

But it was not always easy. Like most Samoans, this was his first experience of destruction on such a scale and at times he admits to feeling overwhelmed:

“I tried really hard to ensure I wouldn’t cry but in the end I cried, and I bawled, and I was very embarrassed.

“But it made me determined that I was going to do whatever I can to help.”

In December, the former Head of State opened his residence in Vailele to the children and youth survivors for a once in a lifetime Christmas party. He greeted every child at the door, and they ate their fill and enjoyed Christmas presents.

His Highness Tui Atua said, until today, the party was one of the most powerful moments in his life.

“If I was lost anywhere in that thing, I found myself in the sharing with parents and their children. 

“I do not know how it begins or how it happens, it just was a natural reaction.”

Ten years after the tragedy, the former Head of State said the tsunami pushed him onto a journey that has endured until today: the fight against climate change.

He was already known as a speaker and advocate of change behaviour that causes global warming. In April 2009 he made the landmark speech on climate change and the perspective of a fish where he warned that climate change is a problem of arrogance and greed.

“If we want to seriously address the critical issues that face our world today we have to come up with something that is bold enough to allow us to say the unsayable,” he told the University of Hawaii.

“In other words, what is constructive in this search for answers is also what is most hard to say.

In the last decade he said he speaks at least two or three times on the global stage on climate change, and he and his wife Her Highness Masiofo Filifilia Imo Tamasese are fellows on the Laudato Si International Group, the group charged with spreading Pope Francis’ encyclical highlighting climate change. 

“People tended to be blind to what was happening, mainly because it seemed to be because of the profits and whatever that came from that,” he said. 

“So I got involved then in the crusade to save humanity from the dangers.”

He said the memory of the tsunami has been a driving force, carrying him from commitment to commitment, reading more and more about climate change and wanting more to do something about it.

His friends at first were cynical but that only made him more determined to be involved.

“I have been forced to grow and to research things and matters that normally I would not have done,” His Highness Tui Atua said.

In August 2018 he wrote a paper on the Samoan perspective on protecting the planet, based on a starling, balanced on a flimsy leaf.

“Starling, starling, we pine for your nimbleness,” he wrote, trying to reach a Samoan indigenous framing of responsibility for climate change.

“For me the conversation is still ongoing. I would like to make a positive contribution.”

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