14 Jul 2015

Tourists, locals brave Samoa tsunami risk

5:46 am on 14 July 2015

The sparkling waters and white sand beckon visitors to Samoa's Lalomanu Beach, named by Lonely Planet as one of the top 10 beaches in the world.

NZer Joseph Walden has returned to  Samoa every year since the 2009 tsunami.

Joseph Walden looks out to the reef the tsunami crashed over on Samoa's Lalomanu Beach. Photo: RNZ / Sharon Lundy

But tourists increasingly take another stop before hitting the beach, checking out the tsunami escape routes which have popped up along the coast following the devastating 2009 tsunami.

New Zealand teacher Kane was last week holidaying at the Litia Sini Beach Resort with his wife and children, aged three and five.

They stayed in a fale on the beach and he said he was not not worried by the possibility of a tsunami such as the one that claimed 143 lives in Samoa six years ago.

But he admitted the family had checked out one of the newly developed escape routes starting to dot the coast.

"Definitely. With wee kids you start not thinking about yourself so as soon as you come here you start to look at where the signs are for higher ground. The first day we came here we checked out the route," he said.

"In the last couple of days I've seen them over there working on one of the ramps."

A sign on the beach directs people to the tsunami escape route.

A sign directs people to the tsunami escape route on Samoa's Lalomanu Beach. Photo: RNZ / Sharon Lundy

South African-born New Zealander Joseph Walden was staying at the Taufua Beach Fales next door and said he was not worried about staying near the beach.

It wasn't because he was blasé about the possibility of another tsunami hitting - it was because he felt he would know what to do as he had survived the 2009 one.

He was keen to share his knowledge with as many people he could.

"At least next time I'll know what to do. I try to tell ... as many people as I can: 'If there's a tsunami or an earthquake, don't sit and wait for the waves'," he said.

"Like a lot of Aucklanders do when there's a tsunami warning, they sit and go down to the beach with their kids instead of just going to higher ground. That's all you have to do. You don't have to run but just slowly move up to higher ground, because you just never know."

Mr Walden was staying at Taufua with wife Tracy and sons Joshua and Scott, then aged 13 and 10, when the wave hit. He, Tracy and Scott bush-bashed their way to safety but it was to be five hours before he saw Joshua again.

"I carried on looking and looking, and pulled out the first little body I saw (which was) a little girl, and then a few other ones thinking it could be my son every time because there was so much dirt around that you couldn't really distinguish between a person's age or size or colour or anything," he said.

Eventually, as he sat on the ground weeping, a boy his sons had become friendly with came running, shouting "Joe, Joe, I saved Joshua and he's up on the hill". Mr Walden fainted.

Debris strewn along the shoreline following the tsunami.

Debris strewn along the shoreline following the tsunami. Photo: SUPPLIED

He said the event had changed his life.

"Then I was very business orientated. Family was there, was first, but business was always there and I couldn't go to the kids' sport, and since then business stress is nothing for me now compared with what you go through in an emergency like we've been in."

The Auckland businessman has returned to Taufua every year since the tsunami and said he plans to keep coming back until the coral has regenerated, which was expected to take about another 25 years.

Tourism return surprises

Lydia Toomalatai runs the Litia Sini resort with husband Joseph and said she was surprised at how quickly the tourists returned.

Her late parents set up the resort but the tsunami reduced it to a concrete platform. She rebuilt with the help of Aucklanders Dave and Leigh Smith, and reopened less than a year after it hit.

"I had to open. I ran out of money. Twelve months without income was hard. It was so difficult. But less than a year later we reopened.

"We still had bits and pieces to complete but we had the main completed. We had the kitchen built, the fales were ready, the bathrooms were ready, and that was enough for us to go by at the time.

"I thought that people won't come back quickly after it but I was so surprised. I was amazed with the number of people who came back pretty much straightaway."

Mrs Toomalatai's mother-in-law and 14 other family members died in the tsunami and she said it took her six months to feel comfortable leaving her house after dark.

But she no longer feared the possibility of another deadly wave.

"If it's going to happen, let it be. I'm not going to run because I may not die from it but I'm going to die from running up there," she said with a laugh.

"It's something I think every Samoan now is aware of. A little shake happens, you see them run. They're going. They're more alert now, which is really, really good to see.

"People are alert to the disasters, so when there's a quake going, they go."

Mrs Toomalatai said it had taken a long time but she could finally talk about the tragedy - and now she even wished she had had her office rebuilt to face the ocean.

"I don't have any fear at all."