EAS Trigger Saved Lives in Samoa Tsunami

PAGO PAGO, AMERICAN SAMOA: In the South Pacific, assessments are still being made as to the loss of life and property in both the Independent State of Samoa and the U.S. territory of American Samoa after yesterday’s tsunami. (The harbor at Pago Pago is shown at left.)

The waves were sparked by an underwater earthquake measuring 8.3 on the Richter scale. As of this morning, more than 100 deaths have been confirmed in the Samoas and in Tongo, according to newspaper reports from the region. Initially, areas as far away as Hawai’i, New Zealand and even the Southern California coast, were placed under tsunami watches and warnings, but damage seems to be limited mostly to the two Samoas and Tongo.

A report on the tsunami from Joey Cummings of KKHJ-FM in Pago Pago, American Samoa, waspicked up by the BBC World Service and detailed the arrival of the 10-foot wave that washed over the Pago Harbor area where KKHJ is based.

“Our building, Pago Plaza, is located in the middle of the harbor, practically at sea level. We stayed on the air as the water reached three or four feet in the parking lot. The water stayed at that level for a few minutes, but then it surged to around 15 feet. Trees, cars, buses, boats all rushed by in a river of mud just outside my window. I actually saw that my own car--a new VW Beetle--was surprisingly buoyant when floating on its roof. We continued broadcasting for the next 5 to 10 minutes, until the batteries on our backup power system died,” Cummings wrote.

Later yesterday afternoon, Cummings said the staff was able to get the station back on air with help from a borrowed generator. The stations main generator was underwater, but its mountaintop transmission site was unharmed.

Cummings has uploaded video of the aftermath in Pago Pago tohttp://www.joeycummings.com/client/SSB/.

KKHJ is the primary station in the American Samoa Emergency Alert System chain. Cummings wrote that two EAS alerts were triggered by the station--one after the earthquake hit and a second 10 minutes later when the water in Pago Harbor started to rise.

On March 19, 2009, an earthquake off the Tonga islands triggered a tsunami warning for American Samoa. Although no tsunami was generated and the warning was rescinded, the government of the territory noted problems in the emergency response. Among the calls to action were for KKHJ and KULA-LP, the secondary station, to ensure that the triggers for the alerting system were cascading properly to downstream stations.

During the Sept. 29 tsunami, the EAS system worked as it should.

Kirk Harnack, director of international business development for Telos Systems and vice president of engineering for South Seas Broadcasting Inc., owner of KKHJ, posted to his Facebook page a letter from KNWJ-FM, Showers of Blessings Radio in Leone, American Samoa, crediting the successful EAS alerts with saving lives.

“The pastor from the village of Amanave called Showers of Blessings today and gave this testimony: 10 minutes after the earthquake, they got the EAS warning from FM104 [KNWJ]. This allowed the pastor to ring the church bell and warn everyone to run to the hills 10 minutes before the tsunami hit.” -- T. Carter Ross

(image by Gregory Melle)

More coverage of the tsunami:
September 29, 2009: “Tsunami Hits American Samoa”
“We were able to air the tsunami warning several times before it hit. Power went off shortly thereafter. The generator for the studio is in the parking lot, which is under 15 feet of water, so we're now off air until we figure out an alternate power source. Our staff is all accounted for. Many of our automobiles are not.”