Killer tsunami – UNSW spearheads research in Samoa

Wednesday, 30 September, 2009
Dan Gaffney

UNSW scientists will assess the impact of the regional tsunami that has struck Samoa, American Samoa and surrounding islands when they arrive next week in the remote South Pacific island group.

Tsunami expert Professor James Goff from UNSW's Natural Hazards Research Laboratory will reach Wallis and Futuna Islands west of Samoa on October 7 for a long-planned field trip.

His UNSW colleague Associate Professor Dale Dominey-Howes will lead an international research team in American Samoa and Samoa to assess the scale and impacts of three-metre waves that surged across the island group following an earthquake that struck at 3.48am AEST today (30th September 2009).

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre put the quake's magnitude at 8.3, while the US Geological Survey said it had a magnitude of 8.0. The island group lies mid-way between Hawaii and New Zealand.

Samoa's disaster management office says up to 100 people may have been killed after waves hit the islands' coastlines, according to recent reports.

"Unconfirmed reports suggest that in some places people recognised the natural warning signs for the tsunami and evacuated to higher ground," says Associate Professor Dominey Howes.

"In other areas this does not seem to have happened. Media reports and communication with people in the affected areas confirm a slowly rising death toll. Events like this have occurred in this region before and are not entirely unexpected."

Professor Goff says today's earthquake-tsunami has been locally devastating: "Reports show the earthquake was large, was widely felt in Samoa and triggered a ‘regional' tsunami that affected Samoa and American Samoa.

"Locally the tsunami may have had waves in excess of three metres and appears to have flooded inland to considerable distances where the coast is low-lying. The tsunami impacted the northeast coast of New Zealand but was less than one-metre high."

Professor Goff's latest research reveals that tsunami-survivor stories and oral histories can powerfully communicate educational messages that could aid disaster preparedness.

The life-saving power of oral histories was revealed during the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami when stories handed down from past generations saved lives in the Simeulue Islands of Indonesia and the Surin Islands of Thailand.

Their value was also evident following the 2007 Solomon Islands tsunami when the indigenous population suffered fewer deaths than immigrant Gilbertese, who had no traditional stories about tsunamis as part of their cultural memory, according to Professor Goff. The new findings are published in the latest issue of the journal Science of Tsunami Hazards.

Stories and legends about the power and danger of tsunamis date back hundreds of years in many South Pacific island indigenous communities. However, traditional story-telling is becoming a lost art, according to Goff, who says this form of knowledge sharing is increasingly limited to adults and the elderly, and rarely passed on to the young.

"Communities that are exposed to the threat of a tsunami need to hear stories and messages about hazards relevant to their localities," he says. "To be meaningful, these messages should reproduce the effectiveness of oral story-telling traditions in local communities."

Researchers at UNSW's Natural Hazards Research Laboratory and the University of Hawaii's Department of Marine Science have been pioneering the use of video interviews to convey the emotive power of survivor stories and to integrate them with information from field surveys, and seismic and geo-morphological data. Planned video interviewing of tsunami survivors began only a decade ago and until recently there were few first-hand post-event accounts of tsunami disasters that had been collected in a timely manner.

"For many survivors this is not the telling of a story but the reliving of an intense emotional experience, the most traumatic experience of their lives," says Goff. "Video interviews can't replace traditional story-telling but capturing these powerful stories of survival on video presents the information in a format that is relevant to younger generations. Furthermore, the video recording of these stories permanently archives an important part of community cultural memory.

The world's largest archive of tsunami-survivor interviews is housed at the Pacific Tsunami Museum in Hawaii. It contains over 400 survivor interviews representing first-hand accounts of ten different tsunamis in the Pacific and India Ocean from 1923 to 2006. The bulk of the archives are held as photographs, audio-recordings and manuscripts of interviews and survivor-recollections.

See James Goff interviewed about his research and this week's earthquake-tsuanmi at UNSWTV

A lesson from the deluge - Sydney Morning Herald

UNSW Professor James Goff, 0401 71 88 78
Associate Professor Dale Dominey-Howes, 0401 647 959
Dan Gaffney UNSW Media, 0411 156 015