The way that I learned I was coming to Samoa was by a PC nurse calling and making sure I’d be okay with going to a country with earthquakes. So earthquakes are what I envisioned for Samoa. I completely ignored however the much more common occurrence of Hurricanes (or Cyclones as they’re called here). This past week I’ve come to experience the sheer force and devastation that comes with Hurricanes.
I was born and raised in North Carolina so Hurricanes kind of came with the territory. When I was little, I can remember sitting in the bathtub with a mattress over us while my mom yelled at my dad who was sitting on the couch outside to get his butt in the bathroom because Fran was coming. All the PC volunteers came into Apia on the 7th for a final week of training, culminating in the Swearing in Ceremony that was scheduled for the 15th. The first few days were amazing. We rejoiced as a group that we were going to make the transition from trainees to volunteers and enjoyed being in Apia. One day there was even a huge ship in port full of Russian sailors. While my group and I were out at a place called The Edge for live music, in walk in a large group of sailors! Aaaah it was fun hearing them speak Russian. They couldn’t speak a lick of English though so it was more charades than anything else. We all planned to come back to The Edge for our final night before moving out to our villages.
The next day, we rolled out of bed, showed up at training, and there was our Country Director, Dale. We knew something was off because he wasn’t in his ie faitaga (formal skirt). He explained that training was canceled for the day. Apparently a Cyclone warning had been issued. He explained though that it was only a tropical depression and shouldn’t be more than just a lot of rain. He warned us to stay away from the windows and to not go outside and that was that. Instant freeday! We all whipped out the cards and started tourneys of Sevens and Up and Down the River. Around 9:00am, the wind started to pick up and we watched out the windows as the palms waved in the air. It still just seemed like a breezy day. After about 2 hours, it suddenly turned into something more dangerous. As we watched out the window, the river behind our hotel went from empty to filled with fallen trees. As they floated down, we saw as they got stuck behind the bridge that led out to the sea. In a matter of minutes, the river rose and as we all gasped, it rose over the banks. Out the window, we could see people who were stuck on what used to be a path beside the river and now had gone underwater. They struggled through the water then went out of sight around a building.
There were now three main areas for us to watch. Out the back, we watched as water filled our backyard, pulling down trees and finally overflowing into the pool. Out the side we watched as our neighbors house was slowly engulfed in water until it came up to his roof. And out the front we watched as the main road slowly muddied, then became a virtual river, shoulder height deep. We watched as people went into the grocery next door and floated the freezers off down the road. As the man next door attempted to drive his car through the waist deep water. And finally as water began to seep into the hotel itself.
The hotel is already on high ground, a good 3 feet higher than the road. We never really thought as we were watching that the water would come up, but when it did, it came fast. At this point we elected someone to call up Dale and tell him that not only was the Peace Corps office definitely flooded, but the hotel as well and we had definitely not stocked up food-wise for conditions this bad. Dale told us all just to hang tight through the storm and they would let us know once it was safe for them to travel when they would be getting food to us. And so we hung tight. We played some cards and tried to forget the scary situation outside. Some volunteers practiced yoga, some went outside to watch, and some slept. Whatever was their way of dealing. Surprisingly, the internet stayed up for several hours through all of this! The power had gone out early on but the internet somehow hung on.
The eye of the storm passed through that evening and so as we laid down to sleep, the storm was picking up again and made for a truly howling night. The next morning, Dale and Karen made the trek through the flooded streets, all so they could get food to us. That shows you exactly how well taken care of we were with Peace Corps. They waded through waist deep water and came inside to drop off the food, then went down to try and assess the situation within the Peace Corps office. Once the door opened, the extent of flood was evident. There was mud and standing water throughout the office. We knew it would have to just stay put until another day though as there were more pressing matters elsewhere throughout the city.
The next day, Karen came by again to see if anyone wanted to go and find a grocery to stock up more. So I went with some other volunteers to a place up the mountain a bit. The devastation was astounding throughout the city. After the grocery Karen asked if we minded staying the car while she ran some errands and none of us minded what with some serious cabin fever so off we went. It turned out that she was trying to locate two Peace Corps staff members who they had been unable to reach. As we drove through neighborhoods, especially along the river, the damage was incredible and reminded me a lot of what I’d seen in Japan. Trees tossed against houses, cars flattened, houses gone.
The next day, we began clean up. We all went down to the Peace Corps office to begin cleaning. A lot of things in our Rec room had to be simply thrown out as they were soaked through with mud with no hope of recovery. Getting the mud itself out was another matter. We formed an assembly line of sorts, pushing the mud out of the rooms, down the hall, and out the door. With 13 PCVs and some staff, it only took about 2 hours.
The helping bug had caught. We’re Peace Corps after all! We contacted someone at the Red Cross and the following day went over to their main building. Allyson and I worked on entering family names and numbers into record accounts for each evacuation center while the other volunteers went out on site to distribute food and clothing. In the process, we met some other volunteers from Oz Aid, an Australian aid agency, who were helping out there. They offered up their shower to us and so we had our first shower in almost a week. It was glorious.
The next half a week we were in the hotel and just tried to wait for word from our sites. We had our official swearing in ceremony almost a week after it was originally scheduled. It was nothing fancy, just held at the US embassy. We wanted to make it special though since we felt we were missing out, so we all decided to wear our special outfits that we’d had made anyway. And we rocked it! We finally got word that the ferry had started running out to Sava’i so those volunteers stationed out there were told to prepare to leave the following day. That night we all got together for our final night and had a Christmas party. We’d picked Secret Santas earlier in the month so we exchanged presents, sang Christmas songs, and laughed. It was an excellent goodbye. Even better present? The power came back. Right around 11pm, the lights suddenly turned on. Sleeping in AC was glorious that night.
The next morning, volunteers left for the early ferry and us Upolu volunteers went out to Samoan Victim Support to shovel mud out of their office. The next day after that I finally headed out to my site! The ride out was rather eye-opening. The top of the mountain looked like it had been stripped bare. I could see a previously hidden waterfall, and plenty of open area. Other parts of the road had fallen away down the mountain and so it was a rather tricky obstacle course getting across the island. I was so happy to finally arrive at my permanent site, it didn’t matter that there wasn’t any power yet. I had my new family and I had water, that was all I needed.