Thursday, May 04, 2006

Did the earth move for you too?

Yesterday morning I was awake or awoke, at 4.30 and felt myself shaking. I thought this was a bit weird (and annoying because that's a bad kind of sick), but then I noticed that the bed was creaking, and as the seconds passed, that the windows and whole house was making a fair bit of noise. All the dogs in the neighbourhood went dead quiet but the insects kept singing their symphony. Earthquake!

The quake lasted a while - easily three minutes - and picked up intensity about halfway through. With the epicentre in Tongan waters there really was never any danger of the quake itself manifesting dangerously here in Samoa. Furthermore, with Apia on the other side of 'Upolu, the chances of any tsunami from the region of Tonga actually causing any real grief here were close to nil.

Whilst I lay in my bed shaking and shuddering about it struck me that it felt just like those massage beds or chairs. The ones where you put in a dollar and it vibrates for a few minutes (no, not those other "massage beds"). Funny, the thoughts that run through your head.

Moments after the quake finished all the dogs in the area went beserk for a couple of minutes before settling back down to sleep. I slowly joined them in slumber for another couple of hours then woke up and made my way into work.

Once I made it into work I discovered that the Prime Minister declared all schools and government offices closed for the day in response to a tsunami alert issued earlier in the morning by the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre (in Hawaii). I spent the morning shopping and enjoying good coffee at a nearby cafe. Two hours later his decision regarding government offices was reversed and we went back to work.

Even though yesterday's earthquake generated only the smallest of tsunamis (Niue measured a 0.21 metre wave), the threat of serious damage in Samoa is very real. Most villages in Samoa are coastal and in Apia itself, many of the emergency response arms of government have their main offices metres from the shore. The meteorology, government radio, police and fire station offices are all exposed in this way.

Another important issue here is education. Given the responses in today's Observer newspaper about the tsunami alert (Street Talk - "How about the tsunami alert?"), it's clear that many Samoans have little understanding of the nature of the event:

"I think that the warning came at the wrong time and that they (Meteorology Division) should have warned the public before the earthquake hit."

"I think that they should have warned us the night before instead of early this morning when they were expecting a tidal wave to hit our shores."

"This is a negative sign which is an indication that the Meteorological office were not doing their job."

"The sudden warning was not very professional because it was a sign that the public have no one to trust if a natural disaster hits."

Questions are already being asked about the capacity of the government to respond in a timely and appropriate fashion to natural disasters. I imagine we'll see that issue thrashed out in the newspaper over the next couple of days. I wonder though, given the responses above, if we'll see the same kind of attention paid to the importance of public education as part of any natural disaster plan.


Nicole said...

Thanks for the report. Glad you're okay and got a few hours to sip coffee and enjoy island life. :)

jt said...

I've already emailed a couple of friends in Fiji. I'm most curious as to what they experienced. The USGS earthquake website only has a few responses from Samoa, Tonga, Niue and the Cook Islands.