Piecing The National Park of American Samoa Back Together Will Take Time

A tsunami wave train that struck the islands of American Samoa on Sept. 29 left death and damage in their wake. Damaged artifacts at the National Park of American Samoa were piled together to await restoration, while crews removed office materials for salvaging. NPS photos.

Large chapters of Samoan history were washed away when a tsunami wave train inundated the headquarters of the National Park of American Samoa in Pago Pago on September 29. A series of four waves spawned by a magnitude 8.0 earthquake left the building that houses the headquarters and visitors center in ruins, with a car dangling from a second-story balcony and muck coating much of the first floor.

While the waves had diminished in size by the time they reached the beach in the Pago Pago Habor where the park's headquarters is located, they still carried enough force to send sea water rushing through the first floor of the building, destroying contents and washing away visitor center exhibits and irreplaceable artifacts, according to the National Park Service. Contents of the second floor survived and were removed by Park Service crews. The building does not have utilities or ventilation and is currently unusable.

So bad was the damage that the building's owner resorted to a Bobcat to clear the first floor, said Patti Wold, a Park Service public information officer who was dispatched from her usual position at Mount Rainier National Park to help maintain the flow of information from Samoa. Before the Bobcat went to work, park volunteers removed what they could from the building.

The facility housed artifacts, cultural artwork, historic records and archeology and herbarium specimens that preserve the Samoan history and culture and document the history of the park and its relationship with American Samoa and partner villages. The visitor center exhibits told the story of the Samoan people through culturally focused exhibits and demonstrations by local Samoans. All of the cultural exhibits that were on display in the visitor center's first floor were either damaged or lost, Mss. Wold said during a phone call Sunday.

"It’s a huge concern for the Samoan people. That’s their culture, that’s their history," she said. "This is a big deal. ... It’s like losing half of your family pictures.”

At last count, 32 people on American Samoa were killed by the waves, which struck the South Pacific island shortly before 7 a.m., local time, on September 29. Some of the park's volunteer staff lost family members and homes to the waves, yet somehow kept focused on helping put the park headquarters and cultural collections back together, said Ms. Wold.

“The people here are amazing, you wouldn’t believe how resilient they are," she said. "They still come to work. They’re here. They have a huge love for the park. It preserves their heritage, it protects their heritage. We had people who helped pull bodies out of the wreckage. They held it together (emotionally) and can still come to work.”

Located on the far side of the world in a tiny clutch of islands, the National Park of American Samoa is one of the National Park System's often overlooked entities. The park’s rugged and rumpled 9,000 acres, which are spread across the islands of Tutuila, Ofu, and Ta’u, are dotted with stunning tropical rain forests, coral reefs, and shimmering beaches. While the damage to the park's headquarters and cultural collections is highly visible and being assessed, officials haven't yet had time to explore the natural resources -- the coral reefs, the beaches, the rain forests -- to see what, if any, damage they incurred. According to the Park Service, American Samoa's coral reefs host more than 200 coral species and nearly 900 fish species, giving these reefs the greatest coral reef biodiversity of any United States national park.

"We’re trying to get some dive teams out," Ms. Wold said, adding, though, that "there’s only so many resources to go around here. How are we going to get a plane up, how are we going to do this, how are we going to do that? There’s only so much we can do. We have to priortize things. But that (inspecting the reefs) is something that came up yesterday. When are we going to get these guys out there? And we wanted to do a flight over the park to assess damage, but we haven’t been able to get any aircraft yet to do so.”

During the past few days park staff and volunteers have focused on pulling materials -- files, computers, what cultural artifacts remained -- out of the headquarters and visitor center to see what could be salvaged and restored. Eleven three-drawer file cabinets holding files of park history, documents relating to the administration of the park, and cultural history were "packed up and shipped off to Hawaii for treatment, basically restoration," said Ms. Wold.

In a news release, the spokeswoman said three subject matter experts from the National Park Service Western Cultural Resources Emergency Response Team worked to complete an inventory of artifacts and archeological and herbarium specimens. Oral histories by local residents were damaged but will be salvaged by specialists in Honolulu. Archeology and herbarium specimens appear to be salvageable. Contemporary fine mats and siapos -- a cultural art form that utilizes the bark of the Paper Mulberry Tree -- were damaged and destroyed. The damaged mats were taken to local weaver Akanese Zec and Inailau A Tina, one of two park partner weaver groups, for cleaning and repair using traditional techniques, said Ms. Wold. The mats were to be returned ceremoniously on Monday.

The Park Service continues to work directly with the village Matais and mayors to provide on-the-ground assistance to storm-damaged communities. Two crews continued to assist the partner villages of Afono and Leone with the clean up of debris, according to an agency release. Crew members also assisted in the search for a 6-year-old boy who went missing during the tsunami. The search was suspended Thursday evening, Oct. 2nd, without locating the missing child.