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Older people bear the brunt of Pacific island disasters

by Catherine Wilson | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 1 September 2014 08:39 GMT

Faititili Fuatagaumu stands in front of her house in Saleapaga village on Samoa's Upolu Island, which was destroyed by a tsunami in 2009. TRF/Catherine Wilson

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Efforts are underway to include the voices of the elderly in developing climate change and disaster prevention plans

SALEAPAGA VILLAGE, Upolu Island, Samoa (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Five years ago, when an 8.1 magnitude earthquake and tsunami hit the islands of Samoa in the Central South Pacific, elderly people struggled the most to run away from the huge waves that descended on their coastal villages. And, in the aftermath, they were acutely exposed to ill health and trauma.

As the older generation continue to be over-represented in fatalities caused by major disasters in the Pacific islands, there is growing awareness that their voices need to be heard in disaster planning and policy development.

Faititili Fuatagaumu, 64, will never forget the day in September 2009 when an undersea earthquake generated waves up to 14 metres (46 feet) high which impacted Samoa, American Samoa and Tonga. The path of destruction included her small village of Saleapaga on the south coast of Upolu Island in Samoa, where 200 people lived on a narrow strip of beach in front of towering cliffs.

“I was sleeping as it was early in the morning, but my daughters were already up because they were getting the children ready for school,” Fuatagaumu told Thomson Reuters Foundation. “I was very worried because my older brother, who has diabetes and high blood pressure, was upstairs in the next house.”

Fuatagaumu’s eldest son helped carry her elderly brother from the house, while the family fled up the steep slope behind their home.

Further along the beach, Rosa Tapu felt the earth shake violently at 7 am. Her husband noticed a dramatic change in the sea level and immediately went to find his 78-year-old mother and carry her to safety.


Samoa, a Polynesian island state comprising nine volcanic islands northeast of Fiji, has a population of almost 190,400. About 134,400 live on Upolu Island, and most in low-lying coastal areas.

The tsunami struck 40 villages in the country, destroying half, and took 143 lives, while leaving 3,500 people homeless.

Tapu’s mother-in-law survived, but she remembers at least five elderly villagers who were overtaken by the waves or who passed away while suffering severe shock and trauma.

Fuatagaumu also lost her brother when his health rapidly deteriorated soon after the disaster.

The village has been relocated nearby on higher, more protected ground. But Fuatagaumu regularly visits her ruined home, intent on clearing up. “I am not living here now, because I don’t want to remember the tsunami,” she added.

Three years later, Upolu Island was impacted by Cyclone Evan which destroyed homes, power and water infrastructure, and claimed more lives.


Around 60 percent of the world’s senior citizens, aged over 60, live in developing countries where human exposure to natural catastrophes is acute, and that figure could rise to 80 percent by 2050. The vulnerabilities of older people include restricted mobility, strength, sight and hearing, and low resilience to shock, extreme weather and deprivation of medicine, food and water.

Natural disasters have affected more than 9.2 million people in the Pacific region over the past 60 years. Last year, older people were a significant proportion of those who died when an earthquake and tsunami hit the Solomon Islands. 

In January this year, an elderly woman died when Cyclone Ian swept across Tonga, and 65 percent of fatalities when Cyclone Lusi impacted Vanuatu in March were in the same age group.

Samoa, located south of the equator, has a high risk of volcanic eruptions, tsunamis and tropical cyclones, which are an annual occurrence. The Pacific Climate Change Science Program reports there is a high likelihood that cyclones will become more severe this century, with average wind speeds increasing by up to 11 percent.

According to Tala Mauala, secretary-general of the Samoa Red Cross Society in the capital, Apia, the elderly face different risks depending on the hazard – for example, tsunamis arrive much faster than cyclones.

“You know that the cyclone is coming, so there is time for you to move. The tsunami occurs only seven to ten minutes after the earthquake, so it is very hard if you are in that (vulnerable) category,” Mauala said.


Traditional culture and society in Samoa, which centres on well-bonded extended families, remains alive - and provides an important social safety net for vulnerable members. 

In the village “the able men are the ones that will help if there are elderly people, to carry them and make sure they get to a safe shelter,” Mauala said.

The devastation wrought by the 2009 tsunami motivated the Samoan government to develop a nationwide Community Disaster and Climate Risk Management programme in 2011 which has a mandate to develop comprehensive disaster plans for every village. Samoa’s National Disaster Management Office said the elderly are active participants in all disaster consultations and decisions being made with local communities.

So far, the Samoa Red Cross, one of the implementing agencies, has completed the initiative in 27 of a total of 361 villages. In collaboration with a community, it takes at least two months to map and assess local hazard features, identify evacuation shelters and equip them with water tanks.

Local people are then trained in specific aspects of disaster preparedness and response, including search and rescue, first aid, water and sanitation and taking care of the deceased. 


Boosting the capacity of villages to co-ordinate a response to extreme events will help meet the needs of the elderly at a time when Samoa is experiencing a high rate of emigration of younger people to countries such as Australia, New Zealand and the United States in search of formal employment.

“A lot of our people are migrating overseas to earn a living, leaving behind their parents, so there are elderly people now who have no-one living with them,” Mauala explained.

Yet senior citizens are also a rich source of memory, wisdom and knowledge about climate and environmental change, which is valuable for analysing disaster risks and developing post-disaster strategies. 

“We want to capture the traditional knowledge of our elderly people and integrate it into our teaching, so that it can be sustained for the future,” Mauala reflected. “We are not only helping them further to everyday preparedness, but we are actually learning from them as well.”

Climate change and disaster risk management are key issues being discussed at the Third United Nations International Conference on Small Island Developing States being hosted in Samoa from September 1-4.

(Editing by Megan Rowling: megan.rowling@thomsonreuters.com)

 Catherine Wilson is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia, who travels regularly in the Pacific islands.

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