Samoans in Hawaii are anxious over fate of families at home


POSTED: Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Anneliesse Sword, 81, likes to get up early, a habit that helped her dodge the destructive tsunami that struck Pago Pago, American Samoa, shortly before 7 a.m. yesterday.

“;She's an early riser,”; her son, Max Sword, vice president of Outrigger Enterprises in Honolulu, said with relief. “;She left the house half an hour before the tsunami hit and everything was flooded.”;

Anxious members of Hawaii's Samoan community spent much of the day on the phone yesterday trying to make contact with loved ones and assess damage in Samoa and American Samoa.

Sword was happy to learn that his family was safe. His mother had spent Monday night at her son William's house at the entrance to Pago Pago Harbor, keeping an eye on it while William was out of town. She headed back to her home in the highlands early yesterday, unaware of what was brewing offshore.

“;She got up this morning to go back to her house, up in the high elevation, at 6:10 a.m. or 6:15 a.m.,”; Sword said. “;The tsunami hit at about 6:50 a.m. There was basically no warning.”;


William's house was flooded. But that was better than what happened to the house of Anneliesse's brother, Ernie: It was at the far end of the harbor and was washed away.

“;My uncle's house got cleaned out in Pago Pago Harbor,”; Sword said. “;It's basically a parking lot for boats. I think he's going to be camping at my mom's house for a while.”;

American Samoa Gov. Togiola Tulafono was in Honolulu on business when the disaster struck. He planned to return last night aboard a U.S. Coast Guard C-130 plane from Honolulu sent to deliver aid and assess damage. The Federal Emergency Management Agency was also sending a response team.

“;The shipyard, I understand, is pretty much demolished. So is the main power plant,”; Sword said. “;The airport is still usable. They're still cleaning it up.”;


Yesterday the phones kept ringing at the American Samoa Office in Hawaii.

“;People are calling with concern,”; said Filipo Ilaoa, deputy director of the office. “;They are trying to find information about their loved ones back home.”;

Ilaoa added, “;One of the biggest problems we faced early on during the day is the fact that communications were down, land lines are down. Cell phones seem to be the only way, and even that is very, very limited. Sometimes we get through and then we get cut off.”;

Vita Tanielu, an instructor with the Samoan Language and Culture Program at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, said he had a lot of trouble getting through by phone to his relatives in Apia, the capital of Samoa, formerly Western Samoa. But he received some word about the situation in the region via e-mail.

“;It says that there's cars floating in Pago Pago Bay”; in American Samoa, Tanielu said. “;I'm sorry, I'm kind of emotional at this point. They also say that the southern coastal areas of western Samoa are affected. I have a lot of relatives in those coastal areas.”;

Sword, who was born and raised in Pago Pago, said Samoan leaders plan to meet with Mayor Mufi Hannemann this morning to coordinate efforts to help.

“;My thoughts are with friends and family in Samoa,”; said Hannemann, who is of Samoan descent. “;I know many of us have relatives and good friends in the affected areas, and we pray that they are safe and secure despite what must have been a very frightening time.”;

Sword said he has already started collecting discarded hotel towels and bedsheets that are still usable. “;I have a call out to other hotels, as well as our hotels.”;

Lance Tanimoto, a postal clerk from the Hawaii Kai Post Office, was in Pago Pago to train employees there when the earthquake hit, but he escaped unharmed.

“;We made contact with the person in charge of our operations in Pago Pago, who was with Lance, and all of our postal personnel are safe,”; said Duke Gonzales, spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service in Honolulu. “;They followed directions and sort of headed to higher ground, and secured the main post office before doing so.”;

U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye pledged to do what he could to marshal resources to help. “;My heart goes out to the people of Samoa as they struggle to cope with this terrible tragedy that has taken its toll in lives lost and property destroyed,”; Inouye said in a statement. “;We will do all we can to support federal assistance for those affected by the earthquake and tsunami as they look to recover and rebuild.”;

The Associated Press contributed to this report.