Director Tuala testified today before the House Committee on Homeland Security and Governor Togiola said the renewed emphasis on island community outreach was invaluable on September 29th. (Full statement below)
"Spreading the word through education in the schools, villages and the workforce saved many lives, and we should continue to build upon the successes achieved through those efforts," said Governor Togiola. "Sirens, early alert systems and interoperable communications are critical, but it was the people on the ground that made the biggest difference and impact. And that was achieved with no money at all."
Governor Togiola said positive progress continues to be made in the Territory's disaster preparedness efforts and American Samoa will continue these efforts with renewed purpose in the aftermath of the worst natural disaster in Samoan history.
"I would like to express my sincere thanks to the Fono for their continued efforts and concern on this very important issue. As we continue our focus on helping our island home rebuild our lives, we must also prioritize our current work with Homeland Security in implementing our plans for Emergency Alert System, education, and continued assessment of our work, especially now that the funds are available for these projects," said Governor Togiola.
"I hope Mr. Sala's testimony has helped to clarify the questions of the lawmakers and we truly appreciate the Fono support and assistance."
STATEMENT TO HOUSE COMMITTEE ON HOMELAND SECURITY
by Tuala Michael Sala, Director, American Samoa Department of Homeland Security
Honorable Chairman and Members of the Committee;
At 0648 hours on September 29, 2009, a day that will forever be remembered in our hearts and minds, an earthquake determined to be over 8.0 on the Richter scale struck the Samoan archipelago and surrounding regions. The magnitude and proximity of this quake generated a tsunami that resulted in the death of 33 citizens (plus two missing and presumed dead) and caused damage which has been estimated in the millions.
The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) confirmed the preliminary magnitude of the earthquake at 7.9 and advised the American Samoa Department of Homeland Security (ASDHS) to issue a verbal warning and activate the Radio Alert System. ASDHS Deputy Director Jacinta Brown arrived at the EOC minutes after the earthquake and in conjunction with Joey Cummings of Radio KHJ (primary station or point of contact), activated the Radio Alert System.
Why was an earthquake warning sent instead of a tsunami warning?
Because at the time, there was no information as to how big a quake had to be in order to generate a tsunami. We knew we had experienced an unusually strong quake, and many people acted and moved to higher ground, but we were waiting on an evaluation and official word. This is an issue we're working with NOAA and the United States Geological Survey (USGS) to correct, so we'll have the ability to do faster assessments in the future.
Upon the Governor's suggestion following the March 19, 2009 Tsunami Warning, we established a back-up UHF two way radio system called 'EASCOM" to enable key people connected with EAS to communicate quickly and reliably, even in the event of telephone system disruption or overload. The system was in place, and proved invaluable in providing emergency communication on the morning of September 29. The Governor's Security, DPS (Police Dispatch), Homeland Security (EOC), NOAA, and Radio Stations KKHJ, KSBS, KULA, Showers of Blessing, KVZK TV Station and Blue Sky (Moana Cable) are the points where the 2-way hand-held radios are active and monitored 24/7 for significant events (disasters) such as this one.
Training and Public Awareness:
Prior to September 29, 2009, and in conjunction with the mandate from the President of the United States, the Governor of American Samoa signed a proclamation declaring the month of September as National Preparedness Month (NPM) throughout the US mainland and Territories. ASDHS had placed great emphasis on tsunami awareness, education and training and drills conducted in American Samoa Government (ASG) agencies and schools as well as training our village mayors/pulenu'u. These training programs were/are coordinated with the Office of Samoan Affairs and the Department of Education despite the lack of funding due to the "freeze" on USDHS/FEMA grants from January 2007 through September 2009.
Fortunately on that fateful day, ASDHS staff member Karl Prendergast was at the EOC in Tafuna before the earthquake that morning to collect materials for an Interoperable Communications functional exercise scheduled for that same day. The exercise was scheduled to commence at 1000 hours at the Port Administration dock area for First Responders, and the EOC Communication Center was a key driving point of the exercise. Tragically, the interoperability system was tested that day, the difference being that the emergency was real and not one drawn up on paper. The radio system proved to be both dependable and effective in terms of reaching key responders and radio stations to warn of impending danger.
Tsunami scientists in their post-assessment reports confirmed that recent awareness and training programs contributed to numerous lives being saved. They also reported that the tsunami signs placed along the coastline were also instrumental in keeping the public aware of tsunami events when an earthquake occurs.
Additionally, tsunami experts specifically mentioned how impressed they were with the response in the village of Tula. Given the total destruction of homes along Tula village shoreline and the damage to the school we are fortunate that not one child was lost in the Tsunami. These experts reported that the villagers and school administrators credited "Awareness Programs" including drills, exercises and trainings which greatly contributed to their ability to evacuate on that day. A similar situation was reported from Taputapu Elementary where Vice Principal Mr. Soloa'i Ale evacuated the school and took the villagers to safety.
There was no Alarm or Siren system in place or installed in 2006 as previously reported. According to a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between TOHS and ASTCA dated June 15, 2006, and First Amendment to the MOU dated in October 2006, it was agreed by both parties on their respective responsibilities saying:
"To the extent that ASTCA's funding may allow, ASTCA shall take a lead role in developing, constructing, and maintaining a Territory-wide Emergency Alert System (EAS) that will notify American Samoa residents in the event of an emergency through a siren tone and/or a high-powered voice. To this end, ASTCA shall conduct a survey of the Territory of American Samoa to determine the design of such a system and will contract to build the system in phases or other financially feasible method."
Despite what Birdie Ala'ilima said to CNN, there were no funds budgeted or earmarked to purchase, install and implement a siren system in 2005 or 2006. Only this year, funds have been approved by US Homeland Security for the siren system. At this time, ASTCA and ASDHS are working together to achieve this program objective.
Tsunami experts have pointed out that for a locally generated tsunami, sirens are not the primary means of awareness - natural warnings of earthquake and tide receding are our first warnings. The fact is that the tsunami was generated so quickly following the earthquake (a matter of minutes), and because of our close proximity to the epicenter, there was very little time for an official warning or response to be issued. In fact, from the data we have from an assessment, the "official word" as relayed from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC) in Honolulu occurred as the first signs of tsunami were already occurring in American Samoa. An official EAS tsunami warning was initiated as the first wave was being witnessed entering Pago harbor.
While American Samoa suffered the terrible loss of 33 plus two missing people to the September 29th 2009 tsunami, many lives were spared because of the ongoing efforts to educate and train people of the inherent dangers of living in an island community surrounded by water.
In his press conference as reported by Samoa News on November 14, 2009, the Governor told reporters, "The fact of the matter is that all of the attention is given to a siren system. But the government has, in fact, worked on making sure that people are safe. A lot of outreach training has been with local government officials over the last several years and I can assure you that in the recent interviews that were conducted with (local officials) those systems helped save thousands of lives in this disaster, of course everybody wants to have the best system there is. We don't know what the best system is - and we're going to work (with FEMA) to find what that system may be," the Governor said. But I believe the training and the temporary relief system of the UHF radios that the Department of Homeland Security helped us purchase, came into operation that day and it did some good," he said.
Togiola pointed out that the tsunami signs along the shoreline telling people to move to higher ground in the event of a tsunami further worked to save lives on September 29.
"I want to remind everyone that the Australian Tsunami Research Center that did the study in Apia, Samoa, concluded that even with the best system - there was nothing more that could be done to save lives, he said adding that American Samoa was also closer to the earthquake epicenter. The conclusion was that the time factor was critical and he reminded everyone that the official tsunami warning came minutes after the waves hit Pago Pago.
"That is testimony to the fact that we can talk about all these systems - but nature does what it does and sometimes, we can't help it," the Governor said.
Emergency Alert System (EAS):
The Emergency Alert System (EAS) is a separate system altogether. This system specifically describes an automated emergency message relaying system that all FCC licensed broadcast stations and cable systems must participate in. It is a federally mandated system that facilitates automatically using radio, TV, and cable TV to quickly and simultaneously disseminate emergency messages to the public. The EAS requires a "Local Plan" that formalizes participant's responsibilities, procedures, use, and testing of the EAS within a specific area. An EAS Plan was devised in 2006 and is being maintained by an EAS Committee chaired by KVZK-TV under American Samoa Homeland Advisory Council (ASHAC).
Grant money was given by then TOHS to NOAA to install and implement the Early Alert System (EAS), but NOAA was unable to deliver the system after $250,000 had been advanced to them in 2004. The purpose of this system was to enhance the emergency communication capability of American Samoa when a terrorist or natural disaster occurred. According to NOAA, there were issues that needed to be resolved thus causing the delay of completing the project plus the fact that this project was considered as an ineligible cost based on the audit.
The decision to disallow the $250,000 for the NOAA Early Alert System was because TOHS prepaid $250,000 to NOAA for the purchase and installation of the system but failed to follow through to ensure NOAA met the terms and conditions of the Memorandum of Agreement (MOA). Funds were expended but nothing was gained. In addition, the period of performance for the Homeland Security Grant Program (HSGP) that funded the Early Alert System lapsed. The purchase of the EAS system was not an ineligible cost, it was that TOHS had expended funds for the system and got nothing. NOAA and ASDHS are working together in order to get this system up and running, since the problems which previously curtailed the project have been resolved.
ASG - Emergency Preparedness Plan:
ASG has a disaster plan in place and it is being updated regularly. Government agencies and private sector organizations should, in fact, conduct periodic drills and exercises of their emergency plans in order to test/validate their Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) and to promote awareness of emergency procedures. ASDHS is working with PTWC Scientists to develop Tsunami Models and Geographic Information System (GIS) throughout the islands of Tutuila, Manu'a, Aunu'u and Swains Island. Through coordination with the Office of Samoan Affairs and the Department of Education, we hope to work with each village to produce evacuation maps for all schools and villages. These maps will be made available and utilized during evacuation drills as well as for all training conducted across all levels of government and private sector organizations.
Village Communication System (Pulenu'u):
This is to acknowledge the fact that the village mayors (Pulenu'u) in certain cases performed a tremendous service in ringing the bells and communicating to people of the village to move to higher grounds once they felt the earthquake. A good example is the Pulenu'u from Amanave village who evacuated his village to safety. There were no casualties there, although the homes were completely destroyed. This is due to the village's communication system that they were trained to implement and was in place the day of the tsunami and it worked out very well. The Pulenu'u and Aumaga are the first responders in every village.
EOC - 24 Hour Watch Center:
I wish to inform you at this time that the Tsunami disaster operations in the EOC are currently being scaled back and ASDHS is transitioning the EOC Communication Center into a 24/7 Watch Center. We are currently now in our Hurricane Season which begins in November and ends in March. Therefore, this transition into a 24 hour operation affords the Territory a constant state of preparedness and allows the 24/7 Staff to monitor current weather conditions in the region as well as current earthquake activities. Since the September 29, 2009 disaster we have recorded approximately 45 earthquakes in the surrounding region.
While the majority of those earthquakes are in the 5 magnitude category, they are nevertheless occurring at an alarming rate and constant observations of these activities will at the very least give us ample time to issue an evacuation notice to the people of the Territory instead of waiting for an official alert from the NOAA and the PTWC.
Mr. Chairman, and members of the Committee, the fact is that responsible agencies responded to the tsunami incident as best they could, under extreme circumstances. Given the magnitude and proximity of the earthquake epicenter we must consider ourselves very fortunate that more lives were not lost. This was an extremely close and violent earthquake; and while we mourn the loss of 33 plus two missing of our people, we must be thankful for the many lives that were saved due to tsunami education efforts.
Although Federal funds were frozen in January 2007 because of the Office of Inspector General (OIG) May 2007 Audit Report, our limited 6 member team (aside from our Office of Vital Statistics, OTICIDE, SPICIN and INTERPOL responsibilities) assumed the responsibilities of TOHS and TEMCO, where 30 people were laid-off, and the new team managed to resolve the pending issues of homeland security funds which were finally released in September 2009. ASG only paid back $8,221. This is a great achievement especially since two earlier audits revealed 1.7 million (OIG) and 2.4 plus millions (Homeland Security) had to be paid back to the Federal Government.
The disaster education in our schools is clearly working. We have countless stories of young people telling their parents to move to higher ground. I believe one of the best accounts of the disaster was from Mr. Peter Gurr. He called me that morning stating that education and outreach programs saved their lives and the lives of many others throughout the Territory. Mr. Gurr pointed out that the training he received just months prior to the tsunami allowed him to make wise and informed decisions automatically when he saw the ocean recede.
ASDHS has been fully committed to improving disaster emergency programs in American Samoa, and we continue to do everything possible to ensure the safety of our people. Our responsibilities at ASDHS include not only TEMCO preparedness for, and response to, natural disaster, but also mitigation and preparation for response to man-made problems.
We are working closely with NOAA to ensure that ASDHS and NOAA are on the same page when an earthquake which has the potential to generate a tsunami occurs. With funds being released, this will assist us tremendously in obtaining the resources that will improve our future emergency and disaster preparedness plans.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank the entire community; volunteers from every organization, ASG Government agencies, FEMA, the Army Reserve, Red Cross, the Coast Guard and all other Federal agencies for their quick response. It was a great team effort and true professionalism was manifested by everyone involved.
I would especially like to thank those many heroes who, on September 29th worked to save lives. While we continue to mourn, we must also continue forward in our efforts to educate and train the people of the Territory to be prepared when a strong earthquake occurs or when a tsunami warning is issued from afar. I firmly believe that disaster education and awareness training is the key to saving the lives of our people.
It was - and continues to be - a great team effort allowing us to recover from the devastation caused by nature here in American Samoa.
Thank you for the opportunity to come before you to address some of the issues and concerns surrounding the event of September 29, and I hope this will enable you to make informed decisions.