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Hurricane Ofa - America Samoa

February 27, 1990

We have finally stood the real test: We survived a hurricane. Here it’s called a tropical cyclone. Any way you call it, one is enough. Hurricane Ofa hit the Samoan Islands on Friday, February 2nd, and finally passed us to the south on Sunday, February 4th. It left a path of destruction that obliterated whole villages in Western Samoa and destroyed or damaged almost every building in American Samoa. The center never got closer than 180 miles from the island, although, until it veered south, we were directly in its path. It turned south-east again after it passed us, but the winds were stronger and the storm was bigger in diameter by then, so we got the worst of it as it went by. Winds were clocked at our airport at 107 miles per hour. Not the 200 mph of Hugo, but bad enough.

Power was lost on Saturday, the 3rd, along with all communications. Some of this is just now being restored, and on the 23rd water was finally declared fit to drink without boiling first. Trees went down everywhere, along with power poles, and sheet metal roofing flew off like playing cards to litter yards and roads. Some villages in low-lying areas were totaled from the wind and waves. In unprotected harbors, small boats and ships alike were driven up on the reefs. It’s a wonder there were so few injures and no deaths, probably due to advanced warning and fairly decent weather reporting even for such a remote area of the Pacific. Western Samoa for some reason, either didn’t want to alarm its people or were not aware of the severity of the storm. Some of the people were not told, and there were 15 deaths there. They are 80 miles to the west of us and were closer to the center of the hurricane.

Our AM station (which broadcasts mostly in Samoan) stayed on the air during the storm, but the FM went out for a few days, leaving the palagis ("Europeans") without some English translations for the Samoan news and announcements. TV will return as soon as damage to transmitters on the virtually inaccessible cliffs over looking the harbor can be reached and evaluated. They promise to give us loads of information about Hurricane Ofa when they finally come back on the air. If the transmitter cannot be repaired without new parts, that information won’t be forthcoming for at least six months!

At school, much of our roofing material peeled off causing extensive water damage in the classrooms. The library was practically totaled with over 95% of the books destroyed. In the computer room, a large window blew in because the room was "sealed" for air-conditioning and the sheet-rock ceiling collapsed when water poured through the roof. Luckily the caretakers, whose shack at the edge of the playground was immediately leveled, had sought shelter in the computer room. They grabbed the computers in their plastic covers (14 stations, plus two printers) and brought them into the office, which was still dry. Then the caretakers sought shelter there. We don’t know if the computers were damaged in the storm. We still don’t have power.

In my classroom, the leaks I had before became a shower with water coming in from everywhere. My reading texts for all three grades (6, 7, and 8) are still wet and have been written off by the insurance adjuster. Water that fell on the desks leaked through the lift-top hinge areas and ruined some of the books inside. The sheet-rock wall between my room and the eighth grade was blown down and was finally replaced on Wednesday, the 21st. My bulletin and chalk boards were mangled, and I had to scrounge up others from extra supplies in other classrooms. Blistered desk tops had to be replaced with plywood. The roofing material, a "quiet" kind of corrugated red stuff, was replaced with roofing iron, but we ran out and, of course, the fifth through eighth wing was left high and wet! That will be remedied soon. I’m not looking forward to rain hitting that kind of roof during a lesson. I remember trying to play a scene in "Harvey" during a heavy downpour. Shouting doesn’t help. Maybe the wooden roof below the iron will absorb some of the noise.

During the week following the hurricane, Bob and I went out to help some of the parents and the rest of the faculty get the school going again. Bob worked on the roof, taking off old roofing and putting on the iron sheets. I helped sort through the soggy library for usable books, swept water out of rooms , took down some of the ceiling in the computer room, moved desks, etc. Even though the school is in a low-lying area, it wasn’t flooded. The water damage was from the rain coming through the roof and the building is intact. But still, what a mess! And, after a while, what a smell! Books and papers growing all kinds of mold!

School resumed on Valentine’s Day, running until noon for the week. Parents had to supply transportation because the public schools didn’t start until the 20th. We had no telephone, no electricity, and a partial roof. The dividing wall wasn’t up so the 7th and 8th grades tried a kind of open-classroom approach and combined for some things. Somehow we made it through the week. Luckily it didn’t rain during school (it did this past Thursday—Chaos!), but the kids still have to put plastic over their desks before they put their chairs up when dismissed for the day. Hopefully we’ll get our roof up this coming week, along with electricity—and fans! The phone is working intermittently. Since tuition is paid at the beginning of each month and the hurricane chose the 2nd through the 4th to arrive, the school didn’t have time to collect enough to pay all the teachers when the 15th rolled around, so some of us elected to wait while others took half pay. Things finally caught up Friday and we all got checks.

I’m discovering how to teach reading without text books, but I’m adaptable. Junior Great Books is another story. I had modified the program (because we didn’t have the JGB texts) and I was using classroom sets of classics stored—you guessed it—in the library! One of my groups has just finished its book and now I really have to improvise. Luckily the "Adventure and Suspense" reading kit in my room wasn’t badly damaged and I’ve worked out something that, hopefully, will carry me to the end of the year. I might even find enough usable texts to do a literature unit.

Hunky-Dory and Hurricane Ofa

You think something is missing in my letter? Well, I left the best for the last. We made It! Yes, we weathered the storm like troopers. No damage. No problems. Hunky-Dory came though high and dry, her lines unchafed because of the shape of her chocks, not like some boats whose lines parted or whose chains did minor damage to their bows. It was a little scary now and then, but once we realized our mooring would hold and so would our lines to the mooring, as well as a 45 pound anchor we put out just for security, we found the experience fascinating. Funny thing, though, when we called to let people know we were OK, no one had heard about the hurricane. We thought after the governor declared it a disaster area and Bush promised federal aid, everyone would know, Oh, well.

Pago Pago harbor is noted as a "hurricane hole" and it lived up to its name. The harbor is surrounded on all four sides by high cliffs. While the winds were clocked at 107 mph at the airport a few miles away, the highest anyone recorded at our end of the harbor was 70 mph. The wind came mostly from the shore we were closest to (about 300 feet away) so there wasn’t much time for waves to build up. The wind howled and whistled and whined, and we bounced and swayed and swung and strained and took the sheet after sheet of stinging rain and went out to check the lines during the lulls. But mostly we looked out the hatch and watched the storm and the other boats. We left our VHF on Channel 68 along with the other yachts and kept in close contact. One boat gave us constant weather updates received on its single side band radio. Most of us just came on commenting about the wind from time to time, making humorous remarks, asking if everyone was OK. We lashed our dinghy to the cabin top during a lull in the storm. If we needed it, we’d never be able to board it in time anyway and the other shore was less than a thousand feet away so we’d be able to practically step off the boat if we parted our mooring and anchor lines and grounded. Besides the wind kept flipping the dinghy over. So we sat and read and checked lines and cooked and slept and did school work and worked on the computer and talked on the radio. Some of the boats had a bit of damage, but we all made it. AND, we did i t with electricity, communications, and water—which made us better off than many of the people on the island.

A few of the yachties secured their boats and then moved ashore to stay at the hotel or with friends. One of the boats near us would have been lost if the owners hadn’t stayed aboard. Their mooring came off the bottom during the height of the storm and they motored and dragged that 500+ pound mooring all over the harbor for hours until it finally took hold again. One of the yacht teachers from my school had just moved ashore, being in need of a change while working, and the roof of her rented house flew off. The roof on our school was attached to an all wooden base. Most of the roofs here are nailed to bare rafters. So when her roof went, she was completely open to the elements. So much for living ashore.

We had one fascinating thing happen during the lulls in the storm. It started raining mulch! Suddenly cut pieces of leaves began fluttering down through the sky like autumn in New England. We later discovered that the trees on the hillside closest to us were bare of leaves. By the end of the storm we partially needed rakes to clean our decks. While this was going on, someone on the VHF would have us look down at the end of the harbor (where it makes a dogleg to the right) in time to see windblown waves swept this way while we were in a dead calm at our end. Later it would hit us and we wouldn’t find it so interesting anymore. The shape of Pago Pago harbor causes the wind to bend in directions: the wind hits you from one side, but above you can see the clouds moving the opposite way!

When the storm passed us on Sunday, the 4th, and Monday loomed bright and fairly clear, we thought the worst was over. Bob and I took the bus out to the school and helped with the clean-up. Then on Tuesday we were hit with another low and it looked like Ofa was back. This blasted us for two days. Gusts seemed stronger then and there might even have been more rain than the actual hurricane. What was scary was that we’d have a few hours of calm and sudden gusts for about an hour or two. That was when one of the boats clocked the 70 mph—NOT DURING THE HURRICANE. People had begun cleaning up only to have some of their work go for naught. Many of the library books we had saved on Monday were ruined on Tuesday and Wednesday because we had left them in my room to dry out, and thinking the storm was over, had neglected to cover them with plastic. Dry things I removed from the kids’ desks and put on book shelves were now soaked. It was really depressing.

Well, things are getting back to normal. Roofs are being replaced on the houses. Most of the fallen trees and branches have been removed and burned. Power poles have almost all been replaced. Agriculture will take a while to get going again. Most of the bananas plants were wiped out and will take months to grow. That’s a kind of staple here, boiled green bananas. But there’s food on the shelves and merchandise in the stores, and most businesses are still operating. Last week was bright and clear and beautiful, with a nice breeze and that always brings out a ray of hope. Ofa is the first hurricane to hit this island since 1967, so people aren’t waiting in line to move out of American Samoa. Our school year will be extended to make up for days missed. We worked on President’s Day, even though the public schools kept the holiday. We’ll go three days of Spring Break and probably a few days in June. The school year is 175 days and the teachers will be paid for the week we came in to put the school back together. One of the yachties we know painted up some custom "survival" tee shirts with a darling picture of the boats during the hurricane and the yacht’s name. We bought two.

Life goes on, and so does this letter!! So I’ll call a halt and give you relief from eye strain. Write when you can and we’ll do the same.

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