Saturday, October 03, 2009

Dispatch 47 Tsunami!

Sept 30, 2009
We experienced very little with the earthquake and tsunami, safely tucked into Neiafu Harbor in the Vava'u group of Tonga. People on land felt the quake, but we did not, only heard from a fellow cruiser at around 7:45 AM local time that there had been an earthquake and that there was a tsunami warning. The cruiser community (of at least 100 boats here at this time) got on the radio and started giving first hand observations. At first, nothing was noted. Then there was unusual current in an area called Mala Island where there is a coral bed. The bed was exposed (not normal at any tide), then water rushed back in and took out a couple resort wharfs and beached local boats. There was no visible wave. Other cruising boats noted strong currents and mostly raised anchor and floated around until the activity stopped. In Neiafu Harbor which is deep and entered through a bottle-neck, we saw only a rise and fall of the water level slowly over a 30 minute period. Perhaps as much as a 5 foot change about 4 times, but no wave, nothing dramatic.

By contrast, the day after the tsunami, 4 boats arrived from Niuatoputapu, the northern island of the Tonga group. We had spent 2 weeks there and were eager to hear about how they faired. That island has a nearly completely reef enclosed anchorage with a well marked quarter mile channel through the reef and the harbor faces north, the direction from which the tsunami came. Even before the tsunami, at best this island could have been called rural--very few businesses and people lived fairly simply in very basic structures. The living was very much subsistence, people depended on their plantations for most of their food (as well as their chickens and pigs). There were very few stores with few supplies thanks to the supply ferry which sank in June or so. They had received no supplies for 2 months when we were there a month ago. The water pump for the water supply of one of the villages had broken and been down for a couple weeks with no hope for repair any time soon and this was the water pump that supplied the medical center. The airport had been non-functional due to a broken beacon.

There were 6 boats in the anchorage at the time of the tsunami. 4 had already planned to leave just coincidentally and 3 of the 4 were out of the harbor by the time the tsunami hit. That morning, the boats that were leaving were so absorbed in preparations that only one realized there was an earthquake. That boat had their anchor up but was the last to leave the harbor. The other boats were already outside when, 25 min. after the quake, the water receded out so far the fringing reef was exposed (it never is at any tide). Seeing this, the outside boats radioed the boat still inside advising them to stay where they were and not enter the channel. Then a huge wave broke over the whole NE part of the island and continued to break over the reef.

The guys on the boat still inside the anchorage said, “It was like a movie. The wave was 20-30 feet high, steep and we just drove right into it. Luckily it wasn’t breaking and we rode up the front and down the back. After that, there were 4 more waves, maybe a little smaller than the first.” The wave broke over the island, swept inshore and swept out bringing with it all manner of debris including houses, roofs, clothes, yard tools, wood, everything that had been on the ground. They waited about 20 min. then left through the channel (channel markers severely damaged but they followed their GPS track) worried all the time about debris in their engine The boats described hearing a pounding on the corrugated tin roofs right after the earthquake that they belatedly realized was the villagers’ communication with each other to go to higher ground which they must have done for the death rate to have been so low as the villages are near sea level. The health center was also damaged which is amazing because it was a big sturdy cement building and had to have been at least 10-15 feet above sea level not to speak of a half mile from the water.

I offered to go up and help but local health officer assured me that a full medical team was already there. Two sailboats stayed there to help. We have talked to them on SSB and I also spoke with the head doctor at the Vava'u hospital who went the day after the tsunami to Niuatoputapu on a rescue mission and airlifted the most injured people back here. The island was devastated. The island consists of 3 villages with a total of about 950 people. 9 people are confirmed dead including 2 small children, the rest adults. The wave swept as much as 1 km into the island devastating 2 of the 3 villages that were on lower ground. The Health Center was reportedly destroyed as were the government buildings, the telecommunications building and the bank among all the residential structures destroyed.

People lost everything because they ran and their houses were destroyed. Relief efforts have come from the capital of Tonga (within the first 36 hours) and those critically injured were airlifted here. Supplies were brought up along with a medical team. Now there is a supply plane on its way up 72 hours after the event and the cruiser and local Tongan community have been collecting money, food, clothes and building supplies for the people on the island. In some ways the island is finally getting some of the attention it needs, but now the needs are enormously greater than they were when we visited before the tsunami. Reportedly the island smells horrific due to the dead animals and disruption of sewage.

It is mind boggling to realize that the place we had known and loved has been nearly completely destroyed in just a few minutes. As to cruising boats, there are some amazing stories and one tragedy when a sailor was swept off his boat in the huge wave that came into the harbor at Pago Pago, American Samoa, and was crushed in the water and drowned. One family survived in that harbor by holding onto a telephone pole as the wave crashed around them

Thanks to all our friends who e-mailed us in concern soon after the news reports. As you all can see, we are fine.