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Aid reaches desperate victims as death toll mounts


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POSTED: Friday, October 02, 2009

ASILI, AMERICAN SAMOA » Young Sang Woo kissed a picture of his wife and daughter at a makeshift shrine on the concrete slab where his store once stood, and walked away.

Woo's wife, Mija Shin, and daughter, Puhee Woo, 11, were at the store Tuesday morning when a wall of water swept through the coastal village.

His wife's body was found about a quarter-mile down the coast, but there is no sign so far of his daughter.

“;No can find,”; he said, shaking his head.

And after three days, including the efforts of a Hawaii-based search-and-rescue team yesterday, authorities appeared ready to call off the search.

More than a dozen homes, a little more than half the village, was wiped out by the tsunami.

A village elder, Maota Tevaseu, is credited with saving the lives of schoolchildren who were walking to the bus stop by the ocean. He told them to run for high ground, then rang the village bell and knocked on doors. “;I saw the ocean recede,”; he explained.

“;If it weren't for him, more people would have died,”; said Gene Sevaaetasi, who had held his son over his head as he ran barefoot up the stone path.

In the village yesterday, fires were burning and residents continued to clean up. Public health officials, some from Hawaii, warned villagers to burn decaying fish and other animals to prevent disease.

Residents began wearing masks and bandannas because of the smell from much of the debris.

Betty Ah Soon, a spokeswoman for the Emergency Operations Center, said 31 people were confirmed dead and that there have been no new reports of missing. She said 17 people were killed in Pago Pago, 10 in the Leone area, three in Fagatogo and one in Atauloma. The dead included three children.

Electricity has been restored to most but not all areas of the main island. In Asili and other hard-hit areas, water is still not running or might be unsafe to drink.

The three killed in Fagatogo were at a senior citizens center on the waterfront. Two were seniors who came in early to make handicrafts as part of a senior citizens work project, said Foina Solia, the assistant manager.

Felise Sefo, a carpenter, was in the project office when the tsunami hit.

He said he struggled to open the door as the water flowed in, and was able to squeeze out and climb onto the roof. “;The water was churning,”; he said, and cars and fishing boats were swirling around him.

C-17s from Hickam Air Force Base brought in Hawaii National Guard medical, assessment and search-and-rescue teams and equipment.

“;We've exercised many times,”; said Senior Master Sgt. David Franks this morning as he helped unload medical supplies. “;Now is actually a chance to go out and do it.”;

Nearly 100 Hawaii Guard and Reserve members were expected to help in the relief efforts. All the Hawaii service members on the mission volunteered, including Staff Sgt. Jennifer Kim, a public school teacher with the Air National Guard. “;We're trained to do this,”; she said.

At the LBJ Medical Center, two refrigerated containers were set up outside the morgue to hold bodies.

Police Chief Leseiau V. Laumoli said there have also been problems with looting, and a few arrests have been made. But he said people are mostly working together to help each other.

Many churches became shelters. Ah Soon said about 1,800 people were being sheltered yesterday.

In Pago Pago, cleanup was under way, but the damage could still be visible near the harbor. Cars and boats littered the main highway.

At the Pago Plaza shopping center, the tsunami washed through the first floor and nearly rose into second-floor offices.

Joyetter Feagaimaalii was about to deliver the news in the second-floor offices of V103 and 93KHJ Radio when the earthquake hit.

About 10 minutes later she looked out the window and saw the water rising.

“;We saw the water coming up to our window, and we saw our cars floating and we saw containers floating,”; she said. “;I was just screaming.”;

Maj. Joe Laurel, commander of the 93rd Civil Support unit of the Hawaii Army National Guard, met yesterday with police Capt. Taase Sagapolutele at Pago Plaza.

“;What else can I do to help?”; he asked. Sagapolutele said there was a need for fuel for police vehicles and a boat and for heavy equipment for cleanup. They also discussed setting up tents where people could come to get water and food at a nearby community center.

“;This is fast relief for our people,”; Laumoli said. “;It is a great help.”;

Before the disaster, the majority of the population in American Samoa lived below the poverty line, with tuna canneries, coconut plantations and tourism representing the bulk of the territory's economic activity.

;[Preview]    Samoa relief
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Tsunami victims in Samoa receive assistance

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The canneries produce the tuna consumed in millions of American households, with StarKist and Chicken of the Sea having huge factories on American Samoa. But the local tuna industry has been in turmoil since the companies were forced to pay workers the U.S.-mandated minimum wage, something they have historically avoided.

Long before the tsunami hit, Chicken of the Sea planned to close its packing plant this week. The loss was compounded for 2,100 laid-off workers who saw their homeland ravaged by disaster in the same week.

In nearby Tonga, National Disaster Management Office deputy director Alfred Soakai said 90 percent of the buildings on the northern island of Niuas had been washed away in the tsunami, the local hospital has been destroyed and much of the island's infrastructure wrecked.

Rattled islanders were getting counseling on a Navy patrol boat.

The U.S. Geological Survey reported that a 6.3-magnitude earthquake struck yesterday about 151 miles north-northeast of Tonga, and 234 miles southwest of Pago Pago. No tsunami warning was issued.

 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.