Tsunamis uproot centuries-old Samoan cultures

LEONE, American Samoa – The village of Leone is a picturesque enclave that has been a mainstay of the Samoas for centuries, a place where residents gather under beach meeting houses for rituals that are sacred to the local culture.

Today, much of the village is a bleak landscape of rubble.

An overturned van is jammed into the roof of a beach house. Four elderly villagers were killed while weaving Samoan mats and crafts on the shore. A 6-year-old boy and two sisters were swept away while on the way to school. The post office is gone. So is the grocery store.

The carnage in hard-hit Leone offers a glimpse into how this week's deadly earthquake and tsunami in Samoa and American Samoa decimated centuries of culture on two islands that are steeped in tradition.

Samoans have been forced to forgo burial rituals because their villages are gone. Other families have had to speed up the burial process because their loved ones' bodies were discovered in such decomposed states. The beach gathering houses, known as fale, were overrun by the tsunami.

In Samoa, the government has proposed a mass funeral and burial next week.

"I'm not sure the word 'shock' fully describes our sense of loss," said Ben Taufua, whose family in another Samoan village had to bury seven relatives in a hastily dug grave. "Nothing makes sense at all. ... The beach where all of this happened, all those lives were lost, it was paradise on Earth."

The death toll from Tuesday's disaster rose to 170, including 129 in Samoa, 32 in American Samoa and nine in Tonga, while aid efforts continued.

Survivors wore face masks against the growing stench of rot. Medical teams gave tetanus shots and antibiotics to survivors with infected wounds.

American Samoa Gov. Togiola Tulafono said the Federal Emergency Management Agency was working on establishing an office where displaced residents can get assistance for housing. Officials said the focus is shifting from rescuing lives to helping people sustain themselves by providing them food, power and water.

Ken Tingman, FEMA's federal coordinating officer, said that doesn't mean the missing are given up for dead.

"You never lose hope," he said. "As we clear the area of debris, if there are bodies there, we will be looking for them."

Tingman expected almost the entire territory to have power within three to five days, which is much shorter than the monthlong outage that was expected in some parts.

He said the federal government was flying in large generators that should temporarily restore power to most of the island.

In the American Samoan village of Afili, volunteer groups brought bottled water and lunches for the area's 1,200 residents, many of whom survived.

Unlike in other villages, people noticed the ocean receding after the earthquake and recognized it as a sign of a tsunami. They rang the town bell and shouted for everyone to run for the hills.

"We just did it in time," Mayor Eteuni Augafa said. "The waves were coming in so fast."

McGuirk reported from Lalomanu, Samoa. Also contributing were Associated Press writers Fili Sagapolutele in Pago Pago, Ray Lilley in Wellington, New Zealand, and Jaymes Song and Greg Small in Honolulu.

giant marionette through Berlin. AP/Franka Bruns