APIA, Samoa (AFP) – Samoa on Wednesday marked the first anniversary of a tsunami that killed 143 people, as a fresh earthquake heightened painful memories of the Pacific nation’s worst natural disaster.
Dawn vigils were held across the country for victims of the tsunami, which also claimed 34 lives in American Samoa and nine in Tonga.
In a freak seismic catastrophe, three quakes in rapid succession measuring magnitude 7.8 to 8.1 unleashed waves as high as 15 metres (50 feet) that flattened villages and tourist resorts.
Head of state Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Efi he was still haunted by the images that confronted him when he visited the disaster zone with Prime Minister Tu’u’u Anasi’i Leota.
“The anguish and raw pain we witnessed when dead or dying bodies were recovered from thickets, bush or trees, sent our emotions awry and our tears flowing freely,” he said in a televised national address.
“The tsunami swept through more than just the physical life of Samoa. It also swept through our spiritual, religious, cultural, social, mental, emotional and material lives.”
In a chilling reminder of the danger still facing residents in the Pacific’s quake-prone “Ring of Fire”, an earthquake rocked Samoa about an hour after the dawn services.
There were no reports of damage from the tremor, which the US Geological Survey said measured magnitude 5.4 and hit at a depth of 35 kilometres (21.7 miles), 190 kilometres southwest of the capital Apia.
But unnerved locals gathered around radio and television sets, ready for a tsunami alert that would have sent them fleeing to high ground.
“It brought back memories, I had lots of mates that died in the tsunami,” Apia hotelier Fred Crichton told the stuff.co.nz website.
Some communities, including the village of Saleapaga where 32 people died, have relocated permanently to the hills, while others have stayed on the coast but spent the past year preparing for another tsunami.
“Disaster planning was previously simply theoretical, it?s now very meaningful to Samoan communities,” Samoa Red Cross Secretary General Tautala Mauala said.
“Some communities that remain near the ocean are constructing escape routes up steep cliffs to prevent being trapped by another tsunami. Others are including disaster risk reduction in community plans.”
Elsewhere, tourist resorts have been rebuilt with more robust structures than those swept away by the killer waves.
Resort manager Lydia Sini To’omalatai said she was initially too scared of the sea to rebuild.
“But at the end of the day, we decided ‘no, it’s a must that we do’,” she said.
“This is our family livelihood… not only for our family but to provide for the poor and help the church community as well as our village.”
On Sunday, the Samoan government will hold a national memorial day in the deeply-religious country and unveil a memorial plaque dedicated to the tsunami’s victims.
In Tonga the anniversary was commemorated with church services and a day of fasting and in American Samoa, the the tsunami’s anniversary was declared a public holiday.
American Samoa?s Governor Togiola Tulafono told a memorial service that the anniversary would help provide closure for relatives of the dead.