Rebuilding on Saleapaga coast after the tsunami

Nearly ten years after the 2009 tsunami wiped out his village and his parent’s beach fale resort, Manusina, in Saleapaga, Taleo Vaaiga, has never told his children what happened.

He and his wife Leilani Vaaiga had three children back then and today are the happy parents of a brood of seven. 

Ahead of the decade on anniversary of Tuesday 29th of September 2009 Mr. Vaaiga remembers how his family survived, and how they have made it this far.

The morning the 8.1 magnitude earthquake hit and the waters rose up and engulfed Samoa, Mr. Vaaiga and his family were far from the coast, up against the hillside building new houses.

He remembers feeling the earth shake and hearing the rumble. 

“All the people around this area, we had never any idea of what comes after earthquake.

“Suddenly, we saw the big wave coming fast. All the fales, all the things in front here were destroyed,” he said, guesturing left and right around him where the newly built Manusina Beach Fales stands.

“We started running further up the mountain, and the water came and destroyed everything around here. We lost everything, even the new houses we built at the back.”

His family were saved by their distance from the waves, more than 200 metres away from the shore, Mr. Vaaiga believes. 

Almost immediately after the water receded, their family began to clean. Unlike most others in Saleapaga, they did not rush up the mountain to rebuild, but stayed on their strip of coast. 

It wasn’t easy. In the aftermath of the tsunami, they were without power, running water, or even a vehicle. But Mr. Vaaiga was determined start work immediately.

He remembers that just he, his wife and children remained to start working again, rebuilding the home where they were born and raised in. 

Mr. Vaaiga’s parents opened Manusina Beach Fales in 1994. 

“It’s really difficult, and it’s really hard for us to continue to stay here, but we tried our best to make our family members excited to return our life to the beginning,” he said. 

“We were scared, a lot of people had died in the back, were found in the water.

“We heard voices at night-time, a lot of voices from the back, from the ocean, we heard babies crying, like ghosts.”

Faced with the devastation, and the presence of the lives lost to the tsunami, Mr. Vaaiga was driven by a very practical thought.

His children will need ample land to run their own businesses on, and hopefully continue Manusina Beach Fales too, he said. 

He laughs when he admits he has never told his children about the tsunami. And they don’t ask about it either.

They are starting to learn about natural disasters in schools, and what to do if they happen. But it is not something they discuss as a family, and in fact the tsunami is barely something Mr. Vaaiga thinks about at all, he said. 

“I am just thinking forward. The tsunami is over.”

Approximately ten families out of around 100 stayed on the coast. Mr. Vaaiga’s brother and uncle moved their families to the hinterlands with the majority of the village, and the family rarely meet.

“When we have some people from overseas come here we have the family together, but during the week, no.

“If we need something from up there like taro then we meet over there, but we never have any family time.

“We are looking forward to having a family get together, but now we are running the business so there is no time to bring the whole family together.”

If there is spare time, the family travel to Apia to spend time with the children’s grandparents.

And the families in the hinterlands are not immune from their own challenges. Though they have hearty plantations of carbohydrates, they lack fresh fruit and vegetables, and fresh water is often scarce.

“They have no fresh water upstairs,” he said, referring to the mountain top, “they depend on water from the rain.”

“The water that comes from the main line they can’t use for drinking.”

Earlier this year the community received Global Environment Facility funding to plant keyhole gardens for fresh fruit and vegetables, especially leafy greens. 

It took four long years, but Manusina Beach Fales finally started taking bookings again in early 2013, and they have forged a path to success until now.

They won the Samoa Tourism Excellence Award for Best Beach Fale in 2018, and the Government funded Mr. Vaaiga to go to Fiji to learn tourism marketing and to advertise widely.

Today Manusina has regular customers, and he wants to keep improving the site, for them and for the people who have supported them to grow over the years.

“It makes me more confident to keep it up, to improve and develop the business,” he said. 

But problems are far from over. The Aleipata Tourism Association is hard at work planning for an uncertain future marred by the climate crisis.

Samoa’s sea level has already risen more than the global average; by about four millimetres per year since 1993 (the global average is 2.8 to 3.6 mm per year). Under a high carbon emissions scenario could rise between five and 15 centimetres by 2030.

Mr. Vaaiga said he will need to move his fales further away from the coast, and the whole district is looking to shift the road further inland too. 

“It’s a big job, it will cost a lot,” he said. “We need grants from the government, we can’t do it without the government.

“The water was always over there,” he said, pointed out into the sea. “But in the last two months, it’s coming up under the fales, but it was always down there.

“That’s why I say the climate change is happening.  When the high tides come they take the sands.”

Those massive king tides have been happening twice a year since 2017, and can last several days. King tides never used to reach the supports of the fales, Mr. Vaaiga said, but now it’s normal.

“The sea level is rising.”

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