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10 Year Ago: 2009 Samoa Islands Tsunami

[Cars thrown into building by Samoa Islands tsunami of 2009. From Pago Pago, American Samoa. Courtesy of NOAA NCEI/Gordon Yamasaki]

[NOAA]  On an idyllic Monday night in 2009, the palm-lined coasts of the American Samoa, Samoa, and Tonga Islands looked peaceful and serene. But by early Tuesday morning, residents and tourists were struck a devastating blow when a massive earthquake hit 120 miles off the coast of the islands, triggering a tsunami that killed hundreds.

A Tsunami of Deadly Proportions

On September 29, 2009, at 17:48 UTC (6:48 a.m. local time), a magnitude 8.1 earthquake struck midway between Samoa and American Samoa, a U.S. territory. The earthquake generated tsunami waves of up to 22 meters (72 feet) that engulfed the shores, killing at least 192 people; 149 in Samoa, 34 in American Samoa, and 9 in Niuatoputapu, Tonga.

The devastation extended beyond human casualties with houses destroyed, cars swept out to sea and some villages being virtually annihilated. With over $200 million dollars in damages, the islands were ravaged both physically and economically.

With over 30 deaths in the U.S. territory of American Samoa, the 2009 event caused the largest number of deaths in America due to a tsunami in the 21st Century.

[Cars in a parking lot were destroyed after the first wave hit in Pago Pago, American Samoa, in September 2009. Courtesy of NOAA NCEI.]

An Uncommon Event

Most large earthquakes occur in subduction zones, where one plate of Earth’s crust dives beneath another plate. In this region, the Pacific plate subducts westward beneath the Australia plate at the Tonga Trench.

The deadly 2009 tsunami was triggered by at least two separate earthquakes occurring within 2–3 minutes of each other near the Tonga Trench, one of the most seismically active areas in the world. This is an extremely rare event, known as a “doublet.”

Since the earthquakes occurred so close in time, scientists have not been able to distinguish which earthquake occurred first, or which caused a bigger tsunami. However, the events of September 29 involved a magnitude 8.1 earthquake on a normal fault within the outer rise; and the other magnitude 8.0 earthquake occurred on the subduction zone as a thrust event.

[Boats were washed ashore during the 2009 tsunami in Malaloa, American Samoa. Courtesy of NOAA NCEI/Richard Madsen.]

From Peril To Preparedness

The earthquake was felt in American Samoa for up to 3 minutes, giving emergency responders, local government officials, and the public time to respond to natural warning signs because they understood the threat.

Thanks to education and outreach efforts held over the summer and fall of 2009, many organizations and individuals knew the signs of an impending tsunami and had developed tsunami evacuation plans.

Similar to American Samoa, knowledge of the threat and recognition of a tsunami’s natural warning signs saved many lives in Samoa. Starting in 2007, Samoa ran National Tsunami Drills in Apia to prepare for tsunamis, raising public awareness that during a worst-case scenario, villages would have only 15 minutes before the tsunami arrived. Prior to the tsunami in 2009, Samoa also hosted two international meetings that brought attention to the local hazardous conditions that is common to many Southwest Pacific island nations.

[Buildings were destroyed in Pago Pago, American Samoa. The loss of life could have been much worse had residents of the islands not been prepared for this 2009 event. Courtesy of NOAA NCEI/Gordon Yamasaki.]

The small South Pacific island of Niuatoputapu and its nearby volcanic cone Tafahi, along with a distant neighbor Niuafo‘ou, form a remote region known as the “Niuas,” located in the far north of the Tonga islands. In 2009, about 950 people lived on Niuatoputapu. The tsunami was a wake-up call there. At least three major waves hit, with the highest 22 meters on the southern coast of Tafahi. In the main villages of Hihifo, Falehau, and Vaipoa, flow heights measured 4 to 7 meters. Luckily, many of the residents were able to evacuate to higher places during the first and second smaller waves.

Since the 2009 tsunami, Samoa has taken many preparedness measures:

  • Established a 24/7 National Earthquake and Tsunami Warning Center and built an Emergency Operations Center to support disasters

  • Upgraded its warning dissemination systems to include island-wide sirens and SMS to essential village and national representatives, churches, schools, NGOs, and the private sector

  • Created community-driven evacuation maps and signage.

In 2017, UNESCO Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) recognized Samoa’s first UNESCO IOC Tsunami Ready community, a pilot project that recognizes tsunami mitigation, preparedness, and response activities.

In 2012, American Samoa received TsunamiReady recognition, from the NOAA National Weather Service. This recognition promotes the territory’s ongoing efforts at hardening its warning dissemination (sirens, emergency alert system, social media), conducting regular community and school outreach, and creating evacuation maps and response plans with regular drills.

About the author
Mace was born and raised in Minnesota, where his intrigue for weather and broadcasting grew at a young age. His 30 years in broadcasting have taken him all across the Midwest and in the South. During high school and college, Mace first worked at a number of radio stations which helped pay tuition bills and get him ready for a career in television. His first TV Meteorology job was in Wausau, WI, fo... Load Morellowed by stops in Grand Rapids, MI, Fort Myers, FL, Tampa, FL, Cedar Rapids, IA and then across the country on WeatherNation. Mace is one of our Digital Meteorologists, posting weather stories on our website and social media accounts.

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