LALOMANU, Samoa – The village of Leone is a picturesque enclave that has been a mainstay of the Samoas for centuries, a place where residents gather under beach meeting houses for rituals that are sacred to the local culture.
Today, the village is bleak landscape of rubble.
An overturned van is sticking into the roof of one of the beach houses. Four elderly villagers were killed while gathered on the shore to weave Samoan mats and artifacts. A 6-year-old boy and two sisters were swept away on their way to school. The post office is gone, so is the grocery store.
The carnage in hard-hit Leone offers a glimpse into how this week's deadly earthquake and tsunami in Samoa and American Samoa decimated centuries of culture on two islands that are steeped in tradition.
Samoans have been forced to forgo burial rituals because their villages are gone. Other families have had to speed up the burial process because their loved ones' bodies were discovered in such decomposed states. The beach gathering spots, known as fale, were overrun by the tsunami.
"We need these guesthouses to be put back. This is our meeting house," territorial Rep. Vaiausia Yandall said.
The death toll from Tuesday's disaster rose to 170, including 129 in Samoa, 32 in American Samoa and nine in Tonga, as the relief effort entered its fourth day Friday. Medical teams gave tetanus shots and antibiotics to survivors with infected wounds and survivors wore face masks to reduce the growing stench of rot.
Some frightened residents who fled to the hills after the disaster vowed never to return to their decimated seaside villages. More headed to the hills after an aftershock shook the region.
"It's a scary feeling, and a lot of them said they are not coming to the coastal area," Red Cross health coordinator Goretti Wulf said near the flattened village of Lalomanu on the devastated south coast of Samoa's main island. "The lesson they learned has made them stay away."
Workers at Lalomanu's makeshift emergency supply base began carting water, food, tarps and clothes to 3,000 people in the hills. Wulf said drinking water was the most pressing problem. It is the end of Samoa's dry season, when rain is scarce, and the water pipes that supply the villages were destroyed.
Villagers gathered under a traditional meetinghouse to hear a Samoan government minister discuss a plan for a mass funeral and burial next week. Samoans traditionally bury their loved ones near their homes, but that could be impractical because many of their villages have been wiped out.
The reaction to the proposal was mixed, with some relatives wanting to take the bodies and have their own burials, while others wanted a mass funeral delayed for a week to allow relatives to return to the islands from overseas.
Families who were able to carry out proper burials did so under duress.
One family in Lalomanu buried nine family members from four different generations this week, from ages 2 to 97.
Seven relatives were placed in a single, hastily dug grave. One body had been retrieved from the ocean only hours earlier. A young mother, Sina Edmund Taufua, kissed the cheeks of her dead son and daughter, ages 6 and 5, at the edge of the grave as her bandaged arm was supported by a relative.
The family dead were buried without coffins, their bodies covered with a woven mat, during a service that blended traditional Samoan culture with a Christian church ceremony.
"I'm not sure the word 'shock' fully describes our sense of loss," relative Ben Taufua said. "Nothing makes sense at all. ... The beach where all of this happened, all those lives were lost, it was paradise on Earth."
In Leone, about two dozen soldiers and airmen from the Hawaii National Guard on Friday had the heart-wrenching task of searching through muddy debris and rubble for the missing 6-year-old boy, identified by family members as Columbus Sulivai.
Bill Hopkinson, a Leone village chief, said the boy was on his way to school with his 8-and 10-year old sisters when the quake struck. "When the earthquake hit, instead of seeking higher ground, they came running back home," Hopkinson said.
Both girls died.
Leone residents estimate the tsunami destroyed about one-third of the coastal village, population 3,000. The victims were mostly elderly or toddlers; the adults and schoolchildren were already out on their way to work or school when the tsunami hit.
Villager Charissa Siu witnessed the tsunami and managed to save her young nieces who were sleeping. But she was unable to save another relative, Michelle Eneliko, who was sick in bed and was unable to move. The body was found 50 yards away. A Korean man who operated a store next to her house was also killed.
"It was very bad, a very horrifying experience for me when I saw the high waves heading to our village," said
Leone is one of the largest villages in the territory and was once the main harbor for the main island of Tutuila.
In 1830, the Rev. John Williams, a British missionary, chose the village to be his landing place. The area eventually became the center of Christianity on the island, with a monument to Williams still standing.
The fale have long been the center of the villages. Extended families gather in the guesthouse every Sunday to eat brunch or lunch and trade stories.
The meeting houses are also used for traditional Samoan ceremonies featuring awa, a drink made from a plant root that's popular in many Pacific island nations. The buildings all have barren floors, no walls and pillars. In the old days, everyone sat on woven mats, but today people sit in chairs.
Save L.A. Tuitele said the tsunami has had the unexpected consequence of bringing villagers together. The 62-year-old Tuitele was among about 10 men who sat in a circle next to the foundation of a destroyed house, sharing stories with old friends.
"It's sad that it happened," Tuitele said. "But this brings most of the people back here, it brings back the pride that most of the people have here in Leone."