Published January 14, 2015
Hundreds of survivors of the Samoas tsunami gathered at a church on high ground to mourn lost relatives, while pledging to rebuild their obliterated communities after a disaster that killed 177 people.
The Congregational Christian Church of Lalomanu was packed with about 1,000 people, including relatives from Australia and New Zealand and rescue workers for a belated funeral service Sunday for 52 friends and loved ones. A national prayer service also was held in neighboring American Samoa.
Outside the church in Lalomanu, the bereaved hugged and wept. Failuga Gase, whose home was destroyed, cried silently for four family members.
"It's a special occasion to memorialize those" who died, the father of three told The Associated Press. "In our usual way, we have a grave ceremony for those who have died, one by one."
Families are gradually coming to terms with the losses inflicted when tsunami waves roared ashore after an underwater earthquake struck last Tuesday with a magnitude of up to 8.3. The death toll rose by one Sunday to 136 in Samoa after officials identified decomposed human remains, government spokeswoman Vaosa Epa said. Thirty-two people were killed in American Samoa, and nine in nearby Tonga.
The church in Lalomanu was unscathed by the giant wave, because it is built on higher ground than the many beachside homes that were destroyed.
Representatives of 10 families spoke of the 52 lost relatives who less than a week ago had been part of the congregation in this deeply Christian country.
One woman said her family is saddened that they lost their mother but thankful the tragedy wasn't compounded.
Luluu Berns said her sister, brother-in-law and their seven children had all survived, although at one point the 16-month-old youngest child was missing.
"Five hours later, they found this little boy on the beach," she said. "He was face down and the father found him and brought him up and shook him a little and he was still alive. I thank the Lord for this precious miracle that he did for this little boy."
Along the southeast coast of the disaster zone, some damaged churches stood derelict Sunday while villagers gathered in others to pray.
Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele joined hundreds of Samoans for a memorial service involving most of Samoa's Christian denominations in the capital Apia, on the opposite side of Upolu's devastated southeast coast.
Sailele, whose own village of Lesa was washed away by the giant wave that also claimed the lives of two of his relatives, also visited the city's public hospital where he distributed food and clothing to up to 90 patients who had been injured by the tsunami, Epa said.
Earlier, Monsignor Ioane Vito celebrated the first Mass of the day in a 19th century Roman Catholic cathedral on Apia's waterfront, urging the congregation to unite.
"Don't dwell on it but rebuild our lives together as a community," Vito said at the Immaculate Conception of Mary Cathedral. "Pain will unite us, and unity will give us strength."
Unity also was the theme on American Samoa, a U.S. territory, where about 1,000 worshippers packed the pews for a two-hour national prayer service at the Congregational Christian Church in the town of Tafuna. The congregation spilled onto benches outside, women in white bonnets and full-length cotton dresses, the men wearing ties, jackets and traditional wraps, or lavalavas.
Gov. Togiola Tulafono praised the generosity of residents and the Samoan spirit, noting that many have opened their homes to those who lost theirs.
"We can give thanks to the Lord for the blessings we received through this catastrophe. Although there were so many lives lost because of it, in retrospect, God has spared so many more," he said.
Residents are still taking stock of the physical damage caused by the tsunami. Villagers in remote areas of American Samoa were waiting for government officials to assess damage to their homes and shops before they can start cleaning up.
Jina Jang, a high school junior whose family runs a convenience store in Fagatogo town, and her father were sweeping water-logged papers, canceled checks and family photos into piles in front of their home and store. Broken store shelves sat under the store's collapsed aluminum roof.
"We're waiting for FEMA and others," the 17-year-old student said. "They said, 'Don't touch anything yet,' so we're just waiting."
Five of American Samoa's 29 public schools won't reopen with the others Monday because of tsunami damage.
"We're also going to provide extensive counseling for students and other school officials in need," Department of Education Director Claire Tuia Poumele said Sunday. "We understand the impact of such a disaster on everyone."
New Zealand grief counselors and infectious disease specialists have flown to Samoa to help, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key told reporters, adding that the Samoan government has estimated it needs 200 million New Zealand dollars ($145 million) to rebuild wrecked infrastructure and restore water, electricity and roads.
But Key said the death toll could have been worse, had it not been for the quick thinking of staff at a Samoan tourist resort.
At Sinalae Reef Resort, on Upolu's south coast, staff noticed the ocean receding after the quake and immediately began dragging people out of their beach huts, even breaking down doors to warn occupants, Key said. Most of the 38 guests were New Zealanders.
"They dragged those people up the hill and within minutes, the resort was washed away," Key said. "If they hadn't acted so quickly then I think there would have been dozens more New Zealanders killed."
On Tonga, government spokesman Lopeti Senituli said one-third of the houses on the island of Niuas have been destroyed, affecting more than 600 families.
But he added that relief flights have already delivered food, tents and generators along with medical supplies, while a French navy ship's desalination plant is helping provide drinking water.