Residents open their doors, hearts


POSTED: Saturday, October 03, 2009

LEONE, AMERICAN SAMOA » Tuesday's tsunami left Anna Salavea Patu homeless.

She barely escaped, trapped in a bedroom while the water rose around her. Her husband threw their son T.J. up on the roof, and when the water from the first wave receded, she was also able to climb onto the roof before the other waves came and washed away everything inside their home.

But Patu did not have to worry about having a roof over her head, food or clothes.

“;The 'matai' (village chief) called us to come up here,”; she said. Alex Iuli Godinet, the matai of Leone, opened his large home on a hill to the village residents. It is where Patu's family and seven other families have been living since Tuesday.

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“;This is how Samoan people are,”; Patu said. The families living here share food, clothing, cleanup and child-care responsibilities.

It is not uncommon to see acts of generosity and kindness after a tragedy. But Samoans say it is part of their culture, and it is how people in Leone and other villages banded together to survive immediately after the tsunami and continue to help each other recover.

Across the Samoas and Tonga, the death toll from Tuesday's disaster rose to 170, including 129 in Samoa, 32 in American Samoa and nine in Tonga.

Disaster aid efforts continued.

In Leone about two dozen soldiers and airmen from the Hawaii National Guard searched through muddy debris yesterday for a missing 6-year-old boy, identified by relatives as Columbus Sulivai.

American Samoa Gov. Togiola Tulafono said the Federal Emergency Management Agency was working on establishing an office where displaced residents can get assistance for housing.

Leone residents estimate the tsunami destroyed about one-third of the coastal village, population 3,000.

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Salu Hunkin-Finau said the Mormon church in Leone opened its doors to homeless families Tuesday night.

“;We do not wait for the government,”; she said. Church members initially began feeding the homeless, although the territorial government and now FEMA and the Red Cross provide food.

“;When disasters like this strike, we all come together and work and pray for each other,”; said police Capt. Taase Sagapolutele, who was overseeing some of the cleanup and recovery operations near the Pago Plaza shopping mall.

Dozens of community volunteers and workers were helping to remove debris around the mall and in a nearby park.

The traditional system is not perfect. Police Chief Leseiau V. Laumoli said police were working 12-hour shifts to increase security after looting broke out in Pago Pago.

But Laumoli said in general, residents continue to help each other.

In Leone, Musa Alatasig and other local residents helped direct traffic across a hastily repaired, now one-lane bridge that connects the western district of the main island of Tutuila to Pago Pago, freeing police for other tasks.

“;That's how we live here,”; Laumoli said. “;That's part of this community and the culture.”;


The Associated Press contributed to this story.