Tsunami: reality worse than predicted

Try as he might New Plymouth man Ted Wells can't shake a feeling of personal responsibility for those who died in the Samoa tsunami.

The former city council planner was there helping the Samoan government prepare for a potential disaster. It was his second stint in the tiny Pacific island and he had been there for just one week when the tsunami struck.

Now, with 135 dead and the toll still rising, Mr Wells keeps wondering what else he could have done to prevent the damage and save more lives.

Speaking from Samoa yesterday, where he has returned for six months to work on another planning project, Mr Wells told the Taranaki Daily News of re-visiting the villages he had worked so closely with only a few years earlier and finding them completely ruined.

"It's gut wrenching," he said.

"I was always worried about one village [near the worst-hit area of Lalomanu on the south-east coast] because they were backed up against a cliff and had nowhere to run."

The plan had been to move the village and the main road to the top of the cliff so it would be safe, but the move had yet to be made, Mr Wells said.

"The villagers were aware of how much of a threat they were under. They had all agreed to the plans, the government had agreed, it was all signed off. But it would have been an extensive and expensive project."

Many of the villagers and a number of tourists died in the tsunami.

"People talk about the wave only being 40cm high but you can see where it has scoured out an area of the cliff up to 10 or 15 metres high."

If only they had pushed to complete the planned changes, Mr Wells felt so many lives could have been saved.

"I felt terrible. I felt terribly guilty that I hadn't done as much as perhaps I could have. That we had underplayed the danger by not expressing how important [the plans] were. It had been a few years since we had been there and the urgency would have diminished in most people's minds."

Though the emergency plans had worked well in Apia, the south-east coast did not fare so well. "I don't think there's been much success here. The death toll is much higher than I ever feared." Mr Wells could only hope the tsunami's affect would help push the infrastructure plans through faster.

Taranaki Daily News