Guest Post: When Earth and Ocean Shook, Aunty Did Too


We’re so glad that longtime EXII friend, Kiri Close, was able to personalize the tsunami tragedy in this post as she tells about her homeland and family members.

When Earth and Ocean Shook, Aunty Did Too: Samoa Tsunami Didn’t Take Everything
by Kiri Close

For decades, the South Pacific archipelago of Samoa – the place of the “sacred bird” (‘sa’ meaning sacred, and ‘moa’ for a long extinct endemic bird) – has been politically split in two and aptly named by its colonial powers. Once upon a recent time, colonizers designated these islands for non-native autonomy in governance: WESTERN SAMOA (officially renamed INDEPENDENT SAMOA in 1997) and AMERICAN SAMOA (a U.S. protectorate territory much like the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, Marshall Islands, Puerto Rico, etc.). 

Geologically speaking, the USGS National Earthquake Information Center’s Harly Benz states in an interview that “a magnitude 8.0 [on the Richter scale] earthquake very near American Samoa”[1] did, indeed, spawn an immediate follow-up surge of a tsunami that took my people by surprise – my home village of Pago Pago struck the hardest on that particular and main island of the American Samoa chain. The still and moving footage now flooding the internet via YouTube, FaceBook, and several web newsrooms have been at the forefront of social comm for Samoans around the world, who, as we speak, are continuously, anxiously and sadly forging through the latest ‘share’ videos, photos, news websites, and posted questions amongst ourselves seeking positive confirmations as to where family and friends on the island might be, or if they are alive. Internet visuals of my old stomping grounds currently do not look like the village I knew as a growing native child: countless roofs either torn to pieces and several hundred feet away from their original placements; both traditional and western style buildings are no longer standing (Soli’s, a local village fave eatery with its old world charm now  a memory only); the disarray of cars crashed and wrapped around trees; harbor yachts remain kissed to the old LDS chapel that I spent my crazy youthful days pretending to appreciate my tyrannical Sunday School and Primary teachers. In short, Pago Pago village is piled rubble upon rubble everywhere, and at times in photographs, unrecognizable.

Ironically, the harder hit southern shores of my mother’s home island of Upolu (main island of Independent Samoa) are left with almost no rubble at all. Here, tsunami was the most vicious. Photographs and videos attest to not only the fierce crashing waves uninvited, but unlike Pago village on Tutuila, these waves destroyed, then horded everything in one sucking breath – almost in cruel, precise calculation, sparing no rubble at all; surely, a total wipe out of Lalomanu, Aleipata, and Siumu villages amongst others in a matter of about five minutes (so say surviving eye witnesses).[2]

The death toll from all affected islands has yet to be determined, though some are reporting a current approximation of about 150+[3], dozens injured, homeless, hopeless, and several still reported missing (foreign tourists and native school children included). Sadly, new lifeless bodies are discovered as the days pass – another snatch made by the cruel precision of ocean waves parented by earthquake beneath our deep, plate shifting Pacific seas, Pacific Ring of Fire.[4] The hopelessness is daunting and some of my own blood relatives did not escape: two not-so-distant aunts of mine were taken – one found amongst the rubble after missing for several hours, and another more elderly taken by a wave while residing in a senior center flooded out. Thankfully, another cousin that had gone missing was found, though injured and left ‘stuck’ under debris for several hours before being exhumed alive. His situation ended with lady luck on his side, and I was happy to receive this news of him.

My most prized, inspirational true life escape story of hope from home was had by my Aunty Liti. On the morning of, she was driving back to Pago village from dropping off her older brother, my Uncle Unga, for work. Liti was typically semi-stuck in morning traffic along the coastal village of Fagatogo (immediately west of Pago Pago), inching along and honking to drivers like any usual Pacific morning. Without warning and only moments following the unprecedented earthquake, the second wave of the tsunami series swept onto the coastal road, quickly flood lifting her and other cars upward. In the case her car would flood out and entrap her permanently, instinct (loud and clear) told her to get out of her vehicle. Liti swam/ paddled/waded/treaded herself back over to Pago Pago village to reach her son (cousin Spencer), and Uncle Unga’s wife (Aunty Lina) and the kids. If you knew my Aunty Liti like I do, this act of courage in a physically dangerous situation is not surprising. At any moment in her watered trek, she could have been swept away to sea, drowned, fatally struck by debris the size of 70 foot yachts and floating houses, stabbed by floating sharp steel or other. But her natural determination (and surely with some help from the Spirits of dead relatives), she successfully reunited with family alive. And tired.  It is also not surprising that moments later, she was out on the flooded streets, in the villages, at homes, in schools aiding those less fortunate for hours on end. These are the stories relayed to me by my Aunty Sybol  (now an Alaskan resident) who spoke to Aunty Liti earlier this week as soon as comm lines went up for American Samoa.

I called Aunty Liti tonight. Imagine my flood of excitement upon hearing her voice! But we didn’t talk for too long, nor did she revel in her apparent courage – she’s never been one to recognize her own greatness. Besides, she was on her way out to work, busy and ready to be back out on the muddied, unsanitized streets of our unrecognizable, stunned Samoa home.  Most likely she will never interview for the news.

Here, again, I observe how Nature’s cold geological tyranny cannot steal or shake everything.

Amidst the suffering of recent natural disasters of my home, I have found iron willed hope. Might you have similar stories? Feel free to share them, whether they are Samoa Tsunami affiliated or not.



EmilyCC works for a national non-profit and lives in Phoenix, Arizona with her spouse and three children. She is a former editor of Exponent II and a founding blogger at The Exponent.

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9 Responses

  1. Kelly Ann says:

    Kiri, thank you so much for sharing your experience. The two disasters this week in Samoa and Indonesia were humbling. Knowing a handful of Pacific Islanders, I have been moved by witnessing their passion and concern. The world really can change in a second. Living in earthquake country myself (near the overdo Hayward Fault), it reminds me that I need to be prepared and not just for myself but for my community. I love the way the Islanders have rallied around each other.

  2. Kelly Ann says:

    Also, I really like your line that your Aunty survived “surely with some help from the Spirits of dead relatives.” It portrays the rallying of the family both past and present.

  3. Deborah says:

    Kiri: I am so sorry for your losses — technology that brings us close (telephone/internet videos) also must remind you of how far away you are. I sometimes tune out disasters that happen half-way around the world — it’s almost too much to take in, and then someone shares a story about their hometown, their aunt, and it feels like a small world all over again. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Kirsten says:

    My prayers are with you, your family, and all affected by the disaster. Thank you for writing this post. Love you, girl!

  5. Caroline says:

    This is beautifully written. Thank you for documenting your Aunty Liti’s story – what a courageous person. My thoughts are with you and your family.

  6. D'Arcy says:

    So touching and beautifully crafted. I send all my good energy and thougths to your homeland and your family. Thank you for sharing.

  7. Alisa says:

    What a great story that really brings home this disaster for me. I hope and wish the best for everyone during this very hard time.

  8. Kiri Close says:

    Thank you all/Fa’afetai tele lava, for offering such wonderful well wishes and sweet, sweet words of healing for myself and for my Samoan people.

    KELLY ANN: So happy you noticed that little bit I added about “Spirits of dead relatives”–I do feel they did not abandon my aunty. And you are right–the world, on a dime, can absolutely change without warning! Part of our planetary dynamics on so many levels, I guess. Excellent insight.

    DEBORAH: Yes, thank goodness for Facebook! The day it occurred, and for a couple days following, Samoans (like, EVERYWHERE, so it seemed) were glued to FB to swap info, ask questions, share vids & newslinks, offering moral support and humor, etc. (Digital Pacific ‘ohana’, I guess). At the same time, it was sad for me to be away from home and everyone when it all went down–you articulated exactly how I felt/feel in that regard.

    KIRSTEN: Keep those prayers acomin’, girl! Need every one of them.

    CAROLINE: Thank you for the compliments on the writing, and also recognizing my typically courageous (& favorite aunt) Aunty Liti. I think I personally would not be so quick to move into the waters the way she did, but it certainly has me asking myself what I would do personally in that situation: dive in, or wait it out?

    D’ARCY: Thank you, also, for compliments on the craft of writing. I just felt so compelled in a really, really good (and needful way) to type and shape my loss, particularly being so geographically distant from my Pacific Island home, family, and friends. Thank you also for ‘energy’ you sent–I like how you used that lexicon (and with your permission, I will steal your usage of it from here, and utilize it elsewhere in my writings? :o).

    ALISA: You,too–thank you for the very heartfelt well wishes and thoughts. I really like how you said how this guest blog topic, “really brings home this disaster for me” — as many times, disasters occur in places that we may not have any connection to, and I’m so pleased that my teeny bit of written expression drew you in. Thank you kindly, sweetly for that.

    Fa’afetai tele lava ma le soifua,

  9. D'Arcy says:

    Use it Kiri! Use!

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