Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Tales of Samoa -O le afa o tausaga 1966 - The 1966 Typhoon in American Samoa

The 1966 Typhoon in American Samoa

The wind made a soft whistling sound as it slipped through the wire screens. The sound was always there, along with the constant background booming of the surf crashing on the edge of the reef just a hundred yards from my back door.

The salt spray, carried in the south east trade winds, coated the copper wire screens that faced the ocean, turning them green by the day after they were first put on the house.

The moist breeze carried the smell of the sea and salt through the open rooms, leaving a crystalline layer of salt on wooden walls, and left the woven floor mats, the cushions on the furniture, and even the sheets on the bed always feeling slightly damp.

We had lived in the new principal’s house on the school grounds of Aunu’ufou School since September of 1965. It was a wonderful blend of North American and South Pacific architecture. Four-by-four posts evenly spaced around the outside of the house held up a low pitched roof that was covered with heavy cedar shakes. The 30’ X 30’ concrete slab floor, covered with woven pandanus mats, made a cool surface in a hot, humid climate. Breezes from any direction could flow through the openings all the way around the house, which had no exterior walls. The breeze could be moderated and blowing rain stopped by pulling up heavy canvas curtains that were attached with grommets to sail tracks on the sides of the supporting posts. Inside there was a 10’ X 30’ living room on one side, three 10’ X10’ bedrooms on the opposite side, and an island in the center that was divided into a long narrow kitchen, a small bathroom, and a utility closet. A wall mounted ladder next to the door of the kitchen ascended to a small open loft.

On our bookcase near one of the living room windows was a single-sideband radio, our only two-way connection with the rest of the world from the little mile-wide island of Aunu’u. Some men on the island made the early morning trip to work before sunrise each day, rowing in longboats across the narrow channel between Aunu’u and the main island of Tutuila, but as school principal I lived at my work place. Whenever we needed school supplies, or food for the cafeteria, had mechanical problems with the pump that supplied the only running water on the island, or wanted groceries from the Burns-Phillp Store in Fagatogo, the single-sideband radio was the means to communicate our needs.

Squeezing the hand-held microphone and holding it close to your mouth you’d call, “Pago Radio, Pago Radio, Pago Radio! This is Aunu’u, OVER!” and wait for the reply, "Aunu’u, this is Pago Radio, OVER”, and the conversation would begin. Most often we would need a phone-patch, which simply meant that the radio operator in Pago Pago would dial the telephone number of the Department of Education, the Department of Public Works, the Burns-Phillp Store, or anyone else who actually HAD a telephone. Telephone conversations required the active participation of the radio operator, since he had to switch the telephone connection from broadcast to receive each time the party on the opposite end had finished talking. We got in the habit of ending each sentence with “OVER!” and pausing long enough for the switching to take place.

The single-sideband radio also acted as an open party-line, connecting us 24 hours a day to all of the other isolated schools whose only communication was via radio. In the mid-1960’s when there was only a single, mostly unpaved road only along the southern shore of Tutuila, a few very bad, very slippery, often dangerous roads led zigzagging over steep mountain slopes to villages on the north shore, and some villages were accessible only by boat. Schools at Aoloau, Nu’uuli, Vatia, Masefau, Aoa, Tula, and even Swain’s Island 200 miles to the north all kept in touch with each other via the single-sideband radio.

Our first Christmas 14 degrees south of the Equator on a one-mile-wide island in American Samoa had come and gone. Christmas in the tropics was different than it had been in California. Granted, California has mild winters and doesn’t fit the Christmas stereotype of snow-covered roofs and roasting chestnuts, but in Samoa it was steamy! We were south of the Equator where summer begins on December 21 and winter begins on June 21, but Samoa is close enough to the Equator that it makes little difference, except that the normally steady southeast trade winds often die out completely, leaving temperatures in the upper eighties and humidity in the nineties.

We had drawn the outline of a Christmas tree on brown butcher paper, and cut out pictures of ornaments and toys out of a Sears Roebuck catalogue to paste on the paper in lieu of real decorations, but of course that magic smell of evergreen boughs was not there, replaced by the fetid scent of the nearby flooded taro patches, with overtones of sulfur dioxide. We’d sung Christmas carols, read the nativity story, wished friends and neighbors “Manuia le Kirisimasi ma le Tausaga Fou!” (a healthy Christmas and New Year), and we opened presents, but somehow it just wasn’t the same.

January had brought little relief from the heat and humidity. The cooling trade winds had not yet returned. Hordes of mosquitoes, normally blown downwind away from the house and school by the sea breeze now hovered in swirling clouds around the window screens, many finding their way into the house each time a door was opened. Those that found their way in were most annoying at night, when they would hover with high-pitched whining wings only inches away from sleepy ears. An energetic dance performed by men is Samoa is called the “fa’ataupati” or slap-dance (you can click on fa'ataupati to view it, and then come back to finish the story). It is said that it was originally meant to depict the actions of dealing with swarms of hungry mosquitoes. That is wholly believable!

Thursday, February 10th was pleasant. The breeze was once again blowing off the ocean, making the day seem a bit cooler. It did seem unusual that the wind was blowing more from the west than from its almost constant southeast direction. Long, streaky looking clouds scurried across the sky, constantly dimming and brightening the sunlight.

Our first hint of impending trouble was in the early afternoon, when we heard a voice half garbled with static on the single-sideband radio. It was the school principal on Swains Island, two hundred miles to the north, calling via Pago Radio with the information that conditions had been deteriorating there all day. The wind velocity had been picking up all morning, and at high tide the surf was actually washing into the edges of the vegetation at the top of the steep coral sand beach on the western side of the island where the school was located. This was startling, since it was a first quarter moon, a time in the lunar cycle when tide levels experience far less change than at full moon or new moon. The principal said that he had dismissed school early and sent all the children home to help their parents get ready for the storm that was coming.

By late afternoon the sky over Aunu’u was dark, with chunky looking low hanging clouds scudding rapidly from horizon to horizon. When I walked the half mile down the path to the village and boat landing I noticed that the surf was up here too. As the longboats came in carrying the men from work on the nearby island of Tutuila, they had to pause just beyond the waves that were breaking where there was normally no surf to contend with, timing their approach to the beach to come between the wave sets. They jumped quickly overboard into shallow water as the bow of each boat touched the sand, and hurried up the beach to grab the lago, slippery sections of wood that they placed at intervals up the slope. Every available person scrambled to grab sides of the heavy wooden longboats, sliding them much farther away from the water’s edge than usual.

Then they did something that I had never seen done before. Each longboat was cumbrously manhandled and rolled upside down and left on the flat ground high above the beach. I asked what was going on, and was told that there was a big storm coming, an afa … a hurricane. They could read the warnings of wind direction, of cloud shapes and speed, could take heed of the unusual number of frigate birds heading away from their normal ocean patrols toward the land.

As I headed back home I could see much scurrying about in the village. Teenage boys and young men were hitching themselves up the trunks of coconut trees, machetes in hand, and hacking off large numbers of whole coconut fronds. As the long sections fell to the ground they were immediately gathered by younger children, and one at a time dragged toward the scattered fales, the open-sided thatched roof houses. There the adults were busy setting the heavy coconut fronds on end, side by side, all the way around each house, and binding the branches to the fale, girdling the entire house with sennit, the thin strong rope made of braided coconut-fiber strands.

The single-sideband was full of chatter back and forth between the various school stations now, and the Swains Island principal came back on the air about 6:00 p.m., saying in a slightly shaky voice that he was going to sign off the air now, and would not be back on again, since the waves were now beginning to crash against the outside walls of the flimsy building he was in!
Everyone else there had already left the tiny village to make their way cautiously toward the old Victorian style house “Etena” on the lee side of the island, through coconut groves where gale force winds were knocking off coconuts at an alarming rate. Getting hit by one of these would cause serious injury if not death.

The weather was deteriorating rapidly, and there was little we could do by way of preparation. I pulled all of the canvas curtains up on their sail tracks to the tops of each opening, and tied them securely. There was still a gap at each edge almost an inch wide, and it had begun to rain. The strong wind was sending raindrops right on through the cracks at the edges of the curtains, straight into the living room.

We moved all of the furniture to the far side of the room away from the openings, and turned the heavy bookcase against the wall to protect the books. Soon the power went off, and with it our radio connection to the outside world. We lit a kerosene lantern, put our three year old son Mark to bed in his bedroom on the side of the house away from the wind, and went to bed ourselves. That was the start of one of the longest nights in my life.

We lay there in the dark, listening to the developing storm. It is true that the wind sounds similar to an approaching freight train. A distant roaring sound with deep rumbling noises underneath grew louder and louder as it approached. The air around the house was still, but the sound was still growing in intensity, louder and louder until you were certain that any second the entire house would be hit. Instead, the entrained gust went howling past, near, but leaving only gentle swirling eddies to puff around the house.

Over and over the pattern would repeat, terrifying in each approach, sometimes passing on one side of the spot where we huddled, sometimes on the other, sometimes scoring a direct strike, grabbing and shaking the walls until we were certain that we were seconds away from being crushed under collapsing roof timbers. The whole house would shudder and tremble, and Mark woke up in his room calling, “Daddy, it’s raining in my bedroom!” We rushed to snatch him out of harm’s way, bringing him into our room which had the distinction of having solid walls on three sides instead of only two, as the other bedrooms did.

About the time the storm reached its peak around three in the morning on Saturday, there was a loud bang and a tearing noise, followed by violent flapping and crashing. I went cautiously toward the sound, coming from the living room, and found that the force of the wind against the strong canvas curtains had pulled the screws holding the sail track right out of the wood posts, and the sail, with heavy wood battens at top and bottom was standing out almost straight from the opening, flapping wickedly in the hurricane wind. I grabbed a hammer, some 16 penny nails, and a couple of boards from the utility closet and like Don Quixote charging the windmill, marched in to challenge the beast.

I put a single nail through one end of a board, nailing it to the post on one side of the opening. Rotating it, I moved it across the flapping canvas to nail the other end to the opposite post. At that point another violent rush of wind hit the house, and boards and I were sent tumbling to the floor halfway across the room. Charging back into the battle, I managed during a brief lull to get two planks nailed across the canvas, bringing it more or less back into position.

To add to the stress of that night Jan, who was eight and a half months pregnant, began to have contractions! I was certain that I’d have to deliver a baby during the height of the storm. Fortunately they were false labor pains, perhaps heightened by the tension of the storm, and faded away with the coming of morning.

The first light of dawn found us exhausted and groggy from lack of sleep. As we opened the door to explore the rest of the house we found in the back hallway books from the case that had been turned against the wall on the other side of the house. What violence of turbulence had managed to extract them from their shelter and fling them around several corners I couldn’t imagine. We later learned that the wind vane at the weather station on Tutuila had registered speeds of up to 120 before it snapped off its pole. By today’s standards the 1966 typhoon would have been classified as a Force 4, and maybe even a Force 5.

I used my pre-video 16mm movie camera a little later that morning to film the violent surf just outside the house, trees still whipping around in the strong winds, and damaged and collapsed houses in the village.

It was another couple of days before a motor launch was able to make its way through still rough seas to the island to find out if we were still alive. Very seasick friends helped Jan and Mark aboard the launch for the trip back to Pago Pago, and I stayed behind to help with cleanup in the village and at the school. The next day storm driven swells sent monster waves across the reef with such force that surged over the low places in the sand dune that separated the house and school from the ocean. Churning torrents of salt water swirled a foot deep around the foundations of the school buildings, threatening to undermine them, and children and adults from the village came to pile chunks of coral rock to break the force of the waves.

It was several days before I could join the rest of the family, and another 39 days before my daughter Lynne was born in the old Navy hospital in Utulei. Samoan friends, following the tradition of naming children after significant events near the birthday, suggested that perhaps we should have named her “Afa”!


  1. Thanks for the link, George. It's great to see American Samoa in the 60's. Doesn't look like much has changed! Would love to read more stories and see more pictures, so please keep the posts coming.

  2. I truly loved how you wrote the story as much as I enjoyed reading the story itself. I am currently writing a short story for my fictional writing class, and will use some of your experiences as events in my story on Samoa. Thanks in advance!

  3. WOW! Small world. I happened to be one of the babies born during the storm. And yes, Mom named me, Leafaonoono (the hurricane-'66), after the "event" All my life I've been wondering what that day was like. Thanks to your story and pictures I now have a glimpse of that devastating ordeal.

  4. Leafaonoono ....are you still living in Las Vegas?

  5. This is Ephraim from falepalagi thanks for the heads up on your blog. Great stories about Aunu'u!

  6. I'm Claudia Feit Phillips, daughter of Steve and Pat Feit. We were there also. As a ten-year-old girl living in Leone, I remember the hurricane as being a thrilling adventure. Our house filled up with Samoans. The men boarded up the house. There was a lot of cooking and talking inside. When the hurricane was over I remember my family driving around and looking at all the devastation. Thanks for sharing your memories, George.

  7. Talofa! I was in Samoa with my parents 1965-1966 and remember the typhoon quite well. We lived in Tafuna. My father worked for the ETV there. I went to Anau'u one day with him when he had to work on some equipment for the school. We rode on an old military landing craft, which was a very bumpy ride on the water! Nice to see your blog here! Dad set up a radio net after the hurricane to set up phone patches back to the states for families. Claudia, I think I remember you! I was 11 years old. I used to go to Leone to ride horses in the coconut plantation. I think we went to Fia Iloa together? Thank you all for sharing!

  8. Hello, I lived in Tafuna during this typhoon, as well! We were about 3 houses up from the lagoon. Our next door neighbor had a ham radio, which is how we corresponded with my grandparents back inthe states. My name was Cheri Hieronymus and my Dad taught at Fia Iloa High School. His name was Paul Hieronymus. He taught chemistry & physics, I believe. I was 9 years old at the time and I attended the elementary school that was next to Fia Iloa. It is difficult to find information about that storm now, so I was very glad to find this blog! I'm trying to write a nonfiction book for children about my personal experience in this typhoon, but I don't remember everything exactly, like how long the storm lasted. I do remember when the "eye" hit, it was lovely weather, then the 2nd half of the storm hit. Am I correct in this information? And that the typhoon was the worst to hit the islands for many years. Any information anyone can remember about the details would be a wonderful gift to me! Thanks so much! Cheri Hieronymus-Barrington

  9. Your name sounds familiar. My dad, Cameron Pulliam, was the principal of the school in Fiti'uta from 1966-1968.

    1. Talofa! Sure. I remember Cam. It is surprising how many people from those years I've been able to re-connect with, both here and on Facebook "CoconutTelegraph"!