Waiting for the cyclone

Living at the cyclone-prone western tip of Samoa, people are taking steps to prepare for the next cyclone whenever it comes as, sooner or later, it surely will.

A church stands abandoned after 1990's Cyclone Ofa in Savai'i, Samoa.

The far west of Savaii is called “The End of the World”. When you fly to Samoa from New Zealand you cross the International Date Line and arrive before you left. Flying east across the line, Samoa is the first piece of land you come to and this makes the western tip of Savaii the last place on the planet to see the sun each day.

Falealupo is the village at the end of the world. It doesn’t get much rain because the prevailing easterlies drop most of their rain on the high, tree-covered volcanic hills of Upolu and Savaii before the clouds get there. Paradoxically it bears the brunt of the tropical cyclones that hit Samoa because they tend to form to the west and head eastwards. So Falealupo is chronically dry with occasional shocks of far too much rain, accompanied by hurricane-force winds and sea surges to boot. As a result, it’s about the poorest and most vulnerable spot in Samoa.

Savaii is a tall volcanic island, large by Pacific standards. Its volcano last erupted in 1911 and the lava beds are still plain to be seen and many of the gardens look like fields of black rubble. There’s only one road and it runs right the way around the island along the coast, where everyone lives. No-one lives in the steep interior where the family plantations are and where logging operations have removed much of the indigenous forest.

Cyclone Ofa hit Falealupo in 1990 and Val came a year later. The wind was not the main problem in itself but the sea surges just kept coming and coming, leaving the school, several of the churches and nearly all of the houses badly damaged. The village was rebuilt further from the sea and, as a result, when Heta swept through in 2004, the damage was not nearly so bad.

It is not unusual for entire villages to be relocated, even from one island to another, and while this sounds extreme, it in fact one of the most practical ways of preventing the impact of future disasters. Other disaster preparedness strategies include the need to ensure adequate shelter, water and food through a cyclone and its aftermath.

The people of Falealupo rely heavily on rainwater for drinking and other purposes and most houses have large concrete tanks to store their rainwater. During Ofa and again during Val, many families were forced to drain their water tanks and take shelter inside them as they were the only really secure places to sit out the storms. This, together with the destruction of most of the roofs meant that finding clean water was an acute problem after the cyclones. When the village was rebuilt, nearly every household constructed their own cyclone shelter so that they would not have to open up their water tanks. These shelters are low and sturdy and piled round with rocks. Rocks also hold down the roofs, and guttering is kept inside in order to enable the collection of rainwater again, once the storm has passed. Each family keeps its most important possessions in their shelter all the time. Most of the churches built since Ofa and Val have also been built with a view to providing shelter as a back-up to the family shelters.

As soon as it becomes clear that a cyclone is definitely going to hit the people of Falealupo anxiously watch the waves and the sky, as well as listening to the radio. They wait until the very last moment to strip leaves from fruit and vegetable plants so that they will not be uprooted, but remain in the ground and continue to provide food. Each family has a role to play and family members cooperate to ensure that the village as a whole is as well-prepared as possible.