Hurricane Gita in American Samoa: my grandmother’s silent prayers

Marycrully Godinet, Guest Writer

 

In the first week of February, tropical cyclone Gita ripped through the islands of Tonga, Fiji, Vanuatu, and American Samoa. As the cyclone paved a way of destruction in the South Pacific, authorities in American Samoa issued hurricane statements to keep locals aware of Gita’s location and when it was expected to hit. The pending storm led authorities in American Samoa to issue a warning to alert the people to prepare and remain on safe grounds.

Teachers were told to report back to their schools to secure classrooms. A local hurricane statement issued around early morning on Feb. 9 warned the public that Gita was in the neighboring island of Western Samoa, and was making its way to American Samoa. Because the roads are dangerously close to mountains and streams, landslide warnings were also issued. The storm was slowly moving east-southeast, with maximum sustained winds near 50 mph. However, the arrival of a cyclone was not foreign news for American Samoa as the small island has had several past experiences with strong storms. A local woman named Nelma Upuese, from the village of Alao, said in an interview through email that it is, “In times such as this where Samoans come out and lend each other a hand.”

Large crowds of people filled stores, collecting piles of food and water to get through the storm. Families hammered large timbers against windows to protect them against strong winds and heavy rain. The governor of American Samoa, Lolo Moliga, advised the public to stay away from roads so first responders could get to the people who called in for assistance and to clear debris. Many first responders were unable to get to their destinations because of the rising danger of weather conditions. The American Samoa Power Authority (ASPA) shut down all power around the island as precautionary measure.

This power outage prevented the National Weather Service office from providing an update on the storm, leading the weather office in Honolulu, Hawaii to take control. The airport was closed and the local flights from Honolulu were delayed for 24 hours. Government offices closed and evening shifts for the Starkist tuna factory were canceled. Authorities turned Tafuna Elementary School into a shelter to aid those who needed immediate help. Villages already affected by flooding were urged to call in to set up appointments. The hospital and all health clinics were still open.

Everyone had a role to play despite the hurricane’s continuous rise in speed and power. Children were tasked with gathering flashlights, pillows, blankets and watching over the elderly or, as some children have called them, “Mama and Papa.”

Locals compared this hurricane to a “whirling monster.”  The whirling monster encircled the tiny island, and its large form was evident by the skies and howling sound of the wind outside. Trees shook violently as sounds of broken branches and pouring rain beat against every door and rooftop, echoing in every corner of every village. Gita ripped through houses and villages like a predator to its prey. Families affected huddled in corners of their houses, frightened. Neighbors went out of their way and risked their lives by going out of their houses to take in those whose houses were severely damaged.

Many locals have described that over the horrific sounds, there was another that could be heard in every village. It was of gospel hymns sung by families as they prayed for help. The Samoan culture focuses greatly on emphasizing the importance of God’s presence being to central people’s lives. Every family, during this time of disaster, stayed close together in their homes all while praying for safety. From Feb. 9 to 14, Hurricane Gita refused to leave American Samoa; however, its punches and kicks had grown less severe. Wind speeds gradually decreased to a point where families could come out and gather more supplies. In the aftermath of this horrible hurricane, American Samoa was left bruised and beaten with no electricity, water or damaged communities.

No injuries or deaths were reported, but many are still without power. Gita caused widespread damage to homes and infrastructure. The Samoa News said in an article, “All public schools closed as crews continued to clean up down trees, debris, and utility lines. President Donald Trump approved a disaster declaration for the U.S. territory, which makes federal aid available. Gita is still a very healthy cyclone with winds around the center at around 145 mph gusting to a whopping 175 mph. The track has the system veering toward Fiji, but it appears that Gita may re-curve and head south to cooler waters.”

Hurricane Gita remained a threat to every island it encountered, leaving behind remains of flooded roadsides and broken homes. The people of American Samoa were without water and electricity for two weeks. In an interview over the phone with Savannah Falesoani, she stated that her family is one of the many whose houses were damaged by Gita. Falesoani said that without electricity and water, they had to head to a village thirty minutes away to obtain water and to shower. Falesoani states, “My parents bought large cases of water and we used it for showering, food and laundry. The hurricane destroyed everything that night and all I could remember was the sound of my grandmother’s silent prayers.” In most villages, some families either rely on government supplied water or village water that comes from streams unfiltered. However, families could not rely on village water because it was heavily contaminated by landslides. The people resorted to interesting means in dealing with scarcity of food and water. They turned to fresh natural resources as a way of taking care of their families. Men in villages climbed coconut trees to gather coconuts. Many families with plantations had taro, bananas, and breadfruit. They relied entirely on fresh produce and their natural resources.

 

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