(eTN) – The month of December is the high point of the traditional cyclone and storm season for the islands of the South Pacific. Since 2004, Samoa had been spared the savagery of a major cyclone although the destructive impact of the September 2009 tsunami, which killed over 120 people in Samoa, was fresh in people’s memory. Fiji has had more recent experience of damaging cyclones. The December 2012 Cyclone Evan struck both Samoa and Fiji, and it became clear that Fiji was far better prepared to face the wrath of Evan than Samoa. This has important implications for the tourism industries of both countries where tourism dominates their national economies.
On December 12 and 13, 2012, Cyclone Evan, which had strengthened to a category 4 cyclone, struck the main Samoan island of Upolu and Samoa’s capital city, Apia, with full force. The 150-km-per-hour winds and torrential rain uprooted trees; flooded rivers and low-lying country, damaged homes, shops, hotels, and beach resorts, and destroyed the country’s main power station. It also severely damaged the Australian and New Zealand diplomatic legations in Apia. As this article is written just after Christmas, power and running water has not yet been fully restored to Samoa. The cyclone resulted in 5 confirmed deaths, with a further 10 people missing and over 6,000 Samoans rendered homeless (5% of Upolu’s population). Samoa’s larger and less-populous island, Savaii and nearby American Samoa, were relatively untouched by the ferocity of Cyclone Evan.
The primary concern of many Samoans, as reported in “The Samoan Observer” was the lack of warning given to the people and to business owners of the impending cyclone. People outside Samoa following the Internet could readily access information of the impending cyclone and the threat it posed to Samoa, but Samoa’s Disaster Management Organization appeared reluctant to issue appropriate warnings to Samoans until a few hours before Cyclone Evan struck. By the time those belated alerts were issued, it was simply too late for Samoans to make the necessary preparations needed to defend homes, businesses, and hotel resorts. The erratic movement of the cyclone may have spurred a hope on the part of Samoan authorities that the cyclone might miss or bypass Samoa. However, whatever reasons are given for the procrastination over the issue of warnings (and there have been many), it is clear that wishful thinking is no basis on which to prepare for or respond to a potential natural disaster.
The lateness of warnings and the lack of preparedness magnified the extent of damage in Samoa. Damage to coastal beach fales and resorts in Samoa was extensive. Apia’s iconic Aggie Grey’s Hotel suffered extensive damage from flooding which inundated the lower floors of the 3-story hotel, although Aggie Grey’s Lagoon Resort near Samoa’s airport was undamaged. The runway of Samoa’s international airport was inundated, and flights were cancelled for several days. The loss of electrical power meant that many websites, including the Samoa Tourism Authority, were inoperable between December 13-15.
Tourists affected by the cyclone were offered alternative accommodation, but in common with locals, were caught up in the confusion which followed the path of the cyclone. From a tourism perspective, December is a low season for international tourism as tourists seem to know what some Samoan authorities were unable to recognize – December is the height of the cyclone season. The country’s emergency services performed heroically to save Samoans and tourists during and after the cyclone, but the lack of warning preparedness was their primary enemy.
Samoans are now heavily engaged in the cleanup, and the Samoan Tourism Authority is issuing the message that visitors can still visit Savaii, but it has little to say on conditions in cyclone-affected Upolu. Samoa’s hotels and resorts are cleaning up. Joe Annnadale, owner of the Sinalei Beach Resort, announced the rebuilding of damaged accommodation in his upmarket resort. The situation at Aggie Grey’s hotel in Apia, which employs over 400 Samoans, is a cloud which hangs over Samoa’s holiday festivities. The management of Samoa’s most famous hotel is currently assessing the cost to repair the extensive damage wrought on the hotel by the cyclone and flooding, and there are real concerns that if the hotel is deemed beyond repair, it may close and many of these jobs would be lost. However, Aggy Grey’s hotel has proven to be a model of resilience in the past, and it is hoped that the hotel’s many supporters in Samoa and around the world will rally to support its repair and survival.
By contrast to Samoa, Fiji was well prepared for cyclone Evan. The emergency services did not procrastinate about issuing warnings, announcing evacuation procedures and setting up emergency refuges sot hat when Cyclone Even hit Fiji on December 18 with the same devastating force as it did in Samoa, there was considerable damage but no casualties. In Fiji, the military government and emergency services worked closely with hotel and resort owners to ensure that guests and hotel staff were safe and that evacuation and refuge processes were established. Many holidaymakers were moved from vulnerable island locations to the main island of Viti Levu.
Unlike Samoa, there was considerable coordination between Fiji’s emergency service providers, hoteliers, and tour operators to assist both tourists and locals with emergency transport and accommodation. There was close coordination between Fijian authorities and the diplomatic delegations of countries with citizens in Fiji. During the cyclone period, there were over 2,000 Australians and 1,500 New Zealanders holidaying in Fiji. While the cyclone dampened their holiday, all were safe. Fiji’s tourism website issued regular updates on the status of accommodation and transport in Fiji, as was the case in Samoa, and flights in and out of Nadi, Fiji’s main international gateway airport, were suspended for 48 hours during and immediately after the cyclone.
One of the key current initiatives of the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) involves building awareness of the importance of integrating tourism and emergency management.
This especially applies in natural disasters in which there is a clear synergy between tourism infrastructure and expertise, and that of emergency management. Fiji has successfully applied the principles of this integration in the effective response to and preparation for Cyclone Evan. It is now up to Samoa and other Pacific island states to carefully asses what Fiji did and to apply the principles of integrating emergency management and tourism to more effectively prepare to meet the challenge of future storms.
The author of this article, Dr. David Beirman, is a Senior Lecturer in Tourism at the University of Technology-Sydney. In 2011 and 2012, he was the co-convenor with the Australian Emergency Management and the UNWTO of two UNWTO Conferences held in Australia which focused on the integration of emergency management and tourism.