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A Look Back: the American Samoa Tsunami

A powerful earthquake struck in the Pacific Ocean on September 29, 2009, generating a tsunami that swept ashore on American Samoa. Striking thousands of miles away from the U.S. mainland, this disaster tested the reach of the American Red Cross.

A Logistical Challenge American Samoa, a group of seven islands about 2,300 miles southwest of Hawaii, is a U.S. territory that makes up the Samoan group of islands in the center of Polynesia, along with the independent country of Western Samoa.

Deploying additional workers and materials to support disaster relief activities half a world away can be a daunting task, especially for a nonprofit organization, so working with partners was especially critical.

In the initial phase of the response, dozens of Red Cross volunteers provided food and supplies to islanders from a warehouse on American Samoa supplied with cots, flashlights, and cooking and clean-up supplies.

The Red Cross then worked with its logistics support donors, including FedEx and UPS, and with FEMA, the Air Force and the Coast Guard to facilitate the transportation of additional Red Cross workers and supplies.

Village by Village, Recovery Begins The American Red Cross sent 97 disaster workers to American Samoa to help nearly 300 local volunteers who coordinated the response. Working together, the Red Cross went village to village, distributing relief supplies to the approximately 2,000 families affected.

As part of the relief efforts, the Red Cross provided “Jumpstart to Recovery” kits to help meet the needs of the disaster victims. Each kit contained two blankets, a combination hand-crank radio, flashlight and cell phone charger, a mesh laundry bag, a first aid kit, note pad and pen, work gloves, face masks and a “bath-in-a-bag,” all in a durable backpack.

Diapers, baby formula, towels, brooms and feminine hygiene products, all of which were in short supply on the island, were also delivered. Shipments by UPS, a member of the Annual Disaster Giving Program of the American Red Cross, included bolts of fabric that could be cut into lava-lava—the traditional skirt-like garment that is worn by men and women on American Samoa.

In total, over the course of the relief operation, the American Red Cross:

  • Served 5,279 meals and 39,783 snacks
  • Distributed 84,714 bulk Items, such as cleaning supplies and disaster kits
  • Distributed 3,731 “comfort kits,” which include items such as soap, shampoo and toothpaste
  • Opened casework for 472 people to provide them emotional support and recovery assistance
  • Helped 1,593 people with health needs
  • Provided mental health services to 3,637 people

The American Red Cross also supported approximately 14 state-run shelters on American Samoa.

Supporting Emotional Needs Recovery from a disaster is an emotional, as well as physical, task. Red Cross specialists in mental health and spiritual care worked with members of the faith-based community on American Samoa, helping children from preschool to high school deal with the loss of family members and classmates.

Partner organizations also teamed up with the Red Cross to specifically address the needs of children, whether for physical safety, specialized food and clothing, or attention to mental health and spiritual care.

The Red Cross and Save the Children—a partner organization for more than three years—stocked and staffed a “Safe Space” play area in the convention center where families lined up to apply for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) assistance. Catholic Charities, a long-time partner of the Red Cross, helped to sort and deliver clothing donations and repackage specialty supplies that included school supplies and Mickey Mouse dolls.