Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Recovery of American Samoa

NOAA American Samoa Tsunami from Ed McNichol on Vimeo.

The South Pacific is a geologic hotbed of activity where earthquakes are a way of life and the threat of Tsunami's are all too real. In 2009, just under 2 years before the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami changed life for hundred of thousands of people, there was a Tsunami that struck the U.S. Territory of American Samoa as the result of a M8.1 quake--the largest in 2009.

American Samoa is a small island Territory with an area of just 76 sq miles, dominated by mountains running through much of its center, the topography of the island puts many of its 55,000+ inhabitants in close proximity to the ocean and at risk. While the familiarity with what to do and how to act in the event of an earthquake and tsunami prevented a large loss of life when the 4 15-20ft waves came ashore, the challenges of recovery were compounded due to American Samoa's unique geography and limited on island resources.

Because of its territory's status, FEMA was deployed to provide assistance, however, due to the indigenous system of land tenure that takes a more communal approach to land use, many couldn't prove "ownership" of their property which  added to the challenge of delivering financial assistance.

It's geography and topography, the indigenous land use system, the limited resources on island, and the number of individuals and families affected posed unique challenges to the Federal system setup to provide financial assistance and the network of voluntary agencies looking to provide help.

Given American Samoa's proximity to the Tonga Trench, an earthquake generating machine, and the challenges that the traditional response infrastructure faced, prompted FEMA to invest over $100 million to get American Samoa certified as TsunamiReady by NOAA. The criteria by which this certification is given are that:

  • A community must have a 24 hour warning point 
  • An Emergency Operations Center
  • Multiple ways to receive Tsunami warnings and alert the public -- a siren alert system has been installed
  • A formal Tsunami hazard plan
  • Conducting emergency exercises to promote public readiness through community education
The sizable investment made by FEMA to bolster resilience on island will hopefully work to mitigate the reliance on outside assistance in future responses. While the events that led to American Samoa receiving the TsunamiReady certification were tragic, the time, effort, and investment in resources have created a more resilient set of communities, ready when the next event happens.

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