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Tavita Tusitala

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Oregonians with ties to Samoa try to reach loved ones
« on: October 01, 2009, 03:44:25 PM »
Locals with ties to Samoa try to reach loved ones

By Damian Mann
Mail Tribune
Medford, Oregon

A devastating earthquake and tsunami in Samoa have sent shock waves through Jackson County as relatives with ties to the remote South Pacific islands worry about loved ones.

"Our hearts go out to those folks," said Jackson County Commissioner Dave Gilmour.

Gilmour and his wife, Sera, who was born in Samoa, have not heard from relatives after high waves swept over the coastline early Tuesday. One of their relatives managed to get through to Sera's brother Pati Mekuli, who lives in the village of Lotofago, which had sketchy phone service before the tsunami.

Luckily, Lotofago was moved inland to about 200 feet above sea level in the 1970s. "That probably saved that village," Gilmour said.

The tsunami hit early in the morning just after the earthquake, and Gilmour remains concerned about schoolchildren and others who might have been on their way to work.

According to a study by Oregon State University, the tsunami occurred about 20 minutes after the earthquake in an area that has similar tectonic activity and risks as the Pacific Northwest, where two tectonic plates are colliding.

Gilmour's wife counts 300 or 400 people on the island among her relatives.

"It is astonishing her sense of genealogy and connections," said Gilmour.

Lolamanu, a popular resort area where Gilmour and his wife stayed last year, is just above sea level and early reports indicate that about 40 people were killed there, he said. "The whole village was wiped off the face of the Earth," Gilmour said.

The New Zealand Herald showed photos of Lolamanu, a few miles from Lotofago, with debris strewn over the beach and a car that had been crushed during the tsunami.

Sera Gilmour said she's worried because she has not heard from family members yet, but she's keeping an optimistic outlook.

"I think they're all OK," she said.

Gilmour's son-in-law, Duane Stanley, was heading to Samoa from New Zealand as part of a relief effort organized through the company he works for, Air New Zealand.

Sera's brother Sopo Mekuli, a head elder of the Samoan Adventist Church in Central Point, said, "Western Samoa is really hit bad. There are over 200 people dead, but they are looking for more."

Most phone lines have been cut, but Mekuli said he did manage to get through to his brother Pati Mekuli, who was uninjured. The nearby village of Saleapaga where his father grew up was hit hard, with early reports indicating 50 people died, said Sopo Mekuli. Saleapaga is located between Lotofago and Lolamanu on the southern coast of Samoa.

After talking with his brother, Mekuli said there are many residents who are still missing.

"We expect the worst," Mekuli said.

At this point, he said the government isn't allowing people to go back to their homes until it is deemed safe.

Mekuli said there were 500 Samoans living in Jackson County during a count about five years ago. Many Samoans with ties to the Seventh-day Adventist Church have their own services and have been trying to build their own church in Central Point.

Mekuli said church leaders this weekend plan to get together to discuss fundraising efforts for Samoa.

He said it has been easier to get news reports about American Samoa, but more difficult to get information about the other Samoan islands to the west.

The devastation will have a profound effect on a community that maintains very close family ties, he said.

"When one person dies in our family, it is a very big thing for our culture, but when 15 people pass away, it is too much," Mekuli said.



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