3 Oct 2009

Mass funeral planned for Samoan tsunami victims

11:27 pm on 3 October 2009

A mass funeral is planned for Wednesday New Zealand time for the Samoan victims of the Pacific tsunami.

At least 170 people in the South Pacific are dead following last week's powerful earthquake and subsequent tsunamis, nearly 130 of them in Samoa. Another 310 people in Samoa suffered injuries, many of them serious.

A succession of waves, some seven metres high, lashed the coastlines of Samoa, American Samoa and northern Tonga following an 8.0 magnitude earthquake that struck in the early morning local time.

American Samoa has confirmed 32 deaths and nine people were killed in northern Tonga.

As well as the 129 dead in Samoa, at least 10 more remain unaccounted for, officials said.

"These are the ones who were swept out to sea or are buried under debris," said Vaosa Epa of the National Disaster Council.

She said the number of missing was collated by police who have been interviewing families in the villages pounded by the tsunami.

New Zealand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) has confirmed four New Zealanders were among those who died in the disaster - two adults and two young children.

One other child is still missing, presumed dead, and MFAT said it has serious concerns for two other New Zealanders who had been staying in the worst affected area of Lalomanu on Samoa's southern coast. They have not been heard from since Wednesday.

Some families in Samoa have already buried their loved ones but the Samoan government is now giving them the choice of leaving them to rest in the family plot or moving them to a mass grave.

A spokesperson for the government says a memorial wall will be erected at the cemetery bearing the names of all victims, whether or not they were buried there.

John Key in Samoa

The New Zealand Prime Minister John Key has committed support to Samoa for the long-term rebuilding of its devastated areas following this week's earthquake and tsunami.

Mr Key, who visited Samoa on Saturday to see the damage for himself, says the repair bill will exceed $100m.

He says he will express his condolences to his Samoan counterpart, Tuila'epa Sailele Malielelagaoi, and then tell him how New Zealand can help. He says the response will be generous.

"I think people in New Zealand would want us to make sure we're helping our friends here in Samoa to regroup and to rebuild after they've been devastated in such a significant way."

Mr Key told Radio New Zealand there will be a long-term programme of rebuilding, particularly in relation to the tourism industry, which makes up a quarter of the Samoan economy.

He says housing and health issues will also have to be considered.

Foreign Minister Murray McCully says Mr Key's visit will mean a good deal to the island, where more than 2,000 people are now displaced.

The Red Cross says many of the homeless are staying with friends or are sheltering in inland orchards or vegetable patches.

A New Zealand Air Force Iroquois helicopter is transporting medics and engineers to the badly affected area of Lalomanu, on the island of Upolu, where environmental health workers are also conducting checks.

The airforce says a water purification unit and another Iroquios is arriving later on Saturday and a plane carrying police dog teams and more doctors and nurses will leave Whenuapai airbase for the island on Sunday morning.

Injured return home

Fourteen injured New Zealanders evacuated from Samoa returned home on a special government flight in the early hours of Saturday.

About half a dozen ambulances were waiting near the runway, at Whenuapai air base, in Auckland, to take them to hospital.

Some of those on board are so seriously injured they were expected to undergo surgery soon after arriving.

Mr McCully was also on board and he described the flight home as sombre.

He says the relief and emergency aid stage will be over in several days, and the reconstruction phase will then be underway.

Mr McCully says the focus will then be on restoring powerlines, water supplies and sanitation.

He says it will be a few days before it is known whether there are any more New Zealand fatalities.

Aid group struggles to provide water

Red Cross says it is finding it difficult to deliver water to survivors in Samoa as people move further inland.

The Aleipata district is the worst hit area, with many having retreated to higher ground, fearing another tsunami.

The aid agency says more water containers are required if water is to get to them. Food and tarpaulins are also needed.

It says more than 2000 people are living rough.

Samoa's Department of Health director of clinical services Dr Limbo Fiu said hundreds of the injured are being cared for at the main hospital in the capital Apia and at emergency centres closer to the worst affected areas.

Aid agency Oxfam New Zealand has sent an emergency response team with the main focus on providing clean water and sanitation to help prevent the spread of disease.

A team of New Zealand surgeons, theatre nurses, anaesthetists and others who have volunteered to help with the relief effort left for Samoa on Saturday.

Victim Support in Samoa says its very concerned about potential psychological damage to survivors of the Tsunami.

Viliamu Paese says survivors he has visited in hospital are in disbelief the incident has occurred and some are so shocked they don't even know what the time is.

Lack of warning

A church minister from one of Samoa's most damaged villages has told Radio New Zealand's reporter there that his village received no tsunami warning on Wednesday.

Rev Uaea Isaraelu said about 30 people from Saleapaga were killed in the tsunami and many could have been saved if there had been a warning, as the waves hit about 10 minutes after the earthquake.

Samoan Prime Minister Tuila'epa Sailele Malielegaoi has said the epicentre of the earthquake was close to shore and the tsunami moved at extraordinary speed, so little more could have been done.

A Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment official has said improvements could be made to the warning system, including timing and communication.

Witness describes heartbreaking scenes

Resort owner Carol Batchelor told Radio New Zealand that 80% of her staff are dead or missing, and whole families have been swept out to sea.

She and her husband Jack, who own the Lupe Sina resort, survived by eventually reaching safety at the top of a hill.

She describes what she witnessed when joining other survivors on higher ground.

"There was one woman there that was just sitting there rocking her dead baby. There was another lady who was bleeding and had broken bones.

"And there was an older woman that was holding onto a log and everybody starting clapping because there was somebody alive, and people went running in to get her.

"But when they went down there, there was a dead two-year-old on the beach."

Relief effort stepped up

The New Zealand Government says it will continue to run shuttle missions between Samoa and New Zealand to deliver emergency supplies, transport medical and rescue personnel and to help evacuate people.

The New Zealand Defence Force said on Friday it now has about 80 people working on relief efforts in Samoa, including medics, engineers, medical evacuation units and air force maintenance crew. The relief teams will fan out across affected areas.

The navy vessel HMNZS Canterbury is being loaded with supplies to help with the relief operation in Samoa.

The ship is expected to depart early next week, and will take about four days to get to Apia.

On board will be a Seasprite helicopter, cargo and plant equipment, and other vehicles needed in the disaster zone.

Any spare space will be offered to other Government departments to ensure as much equipment as possible gets to Samoa.

Once the Canterbury has offloaded its supplies at Apia port the ship will stay in the area to help out with the relief effort.

Supplies arrive at remote Tongan island

In Tonga, a second supply boat carrying food and water left the capital Nuku'alofa on a 26 hour journey to the northern island of Niuatoputapu, where nine people were killed.

Alfred Soakai from Tonga's National Disaster Office said the villagers made the decision to bury those killed the day after the tsunami. Two of the victims were children.

He says 844 people have been made homeless on the island and that assistance from New Zealand and Australia is due to arrive on Saturday.

Many buildings have been washed away, the hospital has been destroyed and the island's airstrip has been severely damaged, preventing planes from landing.

On Thursday, the first patrol boat arrived, carrying supplies of food, water, medicine and equipment to make shelters.

Most buildings in the main village of Hihifo were damaged, but the Red Cross said a newly-built school remains standing and is providing some shelter.

A high-level Tongan delegation has visited the island and reports the level of damage may be lower than originally thought.

American Samoa

A spokesperson for American Samoa's Department of Homeland Security said nearly 2000 people are sleeping in emergency shelters.

Agencies have begun distributing food and water, power generators and medical supplies on the United States territory, where hundreds of homes are destroyed.

Radio New Zealand International's correspondent Fili Sagapolutele said rumours of more tsunamis have been circulating, making people afraid to leave the safety of higher ground.

Looting has been reported in many shops in Pago Pago and village mayors are being asked to enforce curfews.

Eyewitnesses have reported seeing people bundling goods out of shops.

Betty Ahsoon from American Samoa's Homeland Security says they have asked village mayors to help, so the police and emergency services can concentrate on relief work.

Tales of survival

Survivors have been returning from Samoa to New Zealand, some with stories of miraculous escapes from the tsunami.

Among those on a flight arriving at Auckland airport on Thursday night was Tautauta Matalavea, who had taken his children and grandchildren to Samoa to show them where he came from.

He returned in a wheelchair and with deep gashes all over his body and head. His daughter, Susan Matalavea, told Radio New Zealand's Morning Report he could not keep up with the family as they ran from the wave.

Joseph Burston and Nikki Fryer were staying in a beach fale at Lalomanu, on the southern coast of Upolu island.

They said their overwhelming memory was the screaming and roar of the water as the tsunami swept onto shore. They returned home with only the clothes they stood in and borrowed jandals.

Wellington student Chris Nel was surfing off the coast of Samoa's Savai'i island with five others when the tsunami hit. He said they were being carried out to sea, and were struggling against the current, but managed to get to shore in between the surges.