Tsunami shatters traditions

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 at 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 sticking into the roof of one of the beach houses. Four elderly villagers were killed while gathered on the shore to weave Samoan mats and crafts. A 6-year-old boy and two sisters were swept away on their 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 spots, known as fale, were overrun by the tsunami.

"We need these guesthouses to be put back. This is our meeting house," territorial Rep. Vaiausia Yandall said.

The death toll from Tuesday's disaster rose to 170, including 129 in Samoa, 32 in American Samoa and nine in Tonga, as the relief effort entered its fourth day Friday. Medical teams gave tetanus shots and antibiotics to survivors with infected wounds and survivors wore face masks to reduce the growing stench of rot.

Some frightened residents who fled to the hills after the disaster vowed never to return to their decimated seaside villages. More headed to the hills after an aftershock shook the region.

"It's a scary feeling, and a lot of them said they are not coming to the coastal area," Red Cross health coordinator Goretti Wulf said near the flattened village of Lalomanu on the devastated south coast of Samoa's main island. "The lesson they learned has made them stay away."

Workers at Lalomanu's makeshift emergency supply base began carting water, food, tarps and clothes to 3,000 people in the hills. Wulf said drinking water was the most pressing problem. It is the end of Samoa's dry season, when rain is scarce, and the water pipes that supply the villages were destroyed.

Villagers gathered at a traditional meeting house to hear a Samoan government minister discuss a plan for a mass funeral and burial next week. Samoans traditionally bury their loved ones near their homes, but that could be impractical because many of their villages have been wiped out.