Chuuk Struggles To Move On

by David V. Crisostomo

WENO, Chuuk (Pacific Daily News): July 11, 2002 - It took only seconds.

The heavy rains came first - pounding on the islands and running down hillsides like waterfalls. Then there was thunder and lighting. Next came the rumbling of earth.

"I looked up and I saw the earth moving. The tall breadfruit trees were still standing, but the ground was moving and coming down very fast," recalled 52-year-old Binasto Ruben.

His family was outside their wood-and-tin home on Tonoas Island early last week when rain-soaked soil gave way, mixing mud and debris that crushed and buried Ruben's home, as well as hundreds of others throughout Chuuk's 11 volcanic islands.

As Guam's typhoon recovery efforts are focused on clearing debris, and restoring power and water services, residents on the islands of Chuuk State are grieving the massive loss of life in the state's deadliest disaster.

Heavy rains from then-Tropical Storm Chata'an caused more than 30 landslides, which killed more than 40 people and injured dozens of others July 2. The landslides occurred throughout the day, some within just minutes of each other. Every day, the numbers increase as more people are found.

"We didn't even have a chance to run away," said Ruben, whose 11-year-old son, Guideman, was swept under a raging river of mud. The landslide carried his son for nearly 40 feet before spitting his body out into the ocean. Neighbors plucked the boy from the mangroves that line Tonoas' shore. The boy was seriously injured, but alive.

"It was like an ocean wave. My son survived, but many people did not make it," Ruben said. "It didn't even take a minute and so many people were dead."

State of emergency

Chuuk State, in the Federated States of Micronesia, which is about 620 miles southeast of Guam, remains in a state of emergency as disaster assessment teams are trying to determine the extent of the death and damage caused by the landslides.

International relief representatives are here, assisting state and municipal officials in the aftermath of the disaster. The landslides have left hundreds of Chuuk's 47,000 people homeless. It also destroyed many staple crops, aggravating a pre-existing food shortage.

The Pacific Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is expected to assist in Chuuk's recovery as part of emergency assistance provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The FSM, which was once a United Nations trust territory, is now a sovereign island nation that has a Compact of Free Association agreement with the United States, which allows FEMA to provide emergency assistance when needed.

The Pacific Division has drawn on its four districts in Hawai'i, Japan, Alaska and Korea, as well as other corps field offices from Buffalo, N.Y. and New Orleans to staff its emergency response team.

Japan's government also is sending humanitarian aid to Chuuk, according to a Pacific Islands News Association report. Japan plans to provide immediate emergency assistance of 10 tents, 1,000 blankets and 10 generators.

Earlier this week, a team of Guam doctors, organized by the nonprofit organization Ayuda Foundation, arrived in Chuuk to assist local surgeons in caring for the injured. The team's arrival followed an Ayuda-coordinated shipment of critically needed medical supplies, including IV fluid and pain medication.

"Ayuda Foundation is calling every hour to see what we need. We appreciate the help from everybody because we cannot survive this disaster alone," said Nachsa Siren, director of Chuuk's Department of Health and administrator for Chuuk State Hospital.


The hospital's medical and pediatric wards are filled to capacity with injured from the landslides. In the pediatric ward, many of the children are from the island of Tonoas, which had the most casualties.

We used to share a village with 21 families. Now we share a hospital ward, and we don't know where we will go from here," said Ruben, clutching the scarred hands of his son, who suffered extensive cuts and head injuries.

Doctors are unsure of the full extent of 11-year-old Guideman's injuries because the hospital does not have a working X-ray machine.

Ruben said he prays to God that his son will fully recover.

In an adjacent hospital room, 14-year-old Chentaleen Ambraw's head is covered in thick bandages. She sleeps peacefully, maybe for the first time since neighbors in Tonoas pulled her from the landslide debris, said her aunt, Uriana Kapier.

Chentaleen, speaking through a translator, said she remembers her mother pushing her out of the house as the mud plowed through their living room. She said she would not be alive if her mother had not pushed her.

The mudslide crushed her home and carried Chentaleen for nearly 60 feet before depositing her along the mangroves on the shore. The girl's mother and father did not survive. Their bodies were found near their home, Kapier said.

Taitfin Andon, 46, thought he had lost his 10-year-old son, Lastlove, to the landslide in Tonoas. The extension agent for Chuuk's Department of Agriculture was inspecting farms in the village when the landslides occurred. Andon's son was staying with his sister at the time. Shortly after the landslides, he was told by villagers that his son and sister were swept under the mud.

"I ran to my sister's house. I was shaking and crying," Andon said. "There was nothing left of the house. It was just all this mud and we couldn't find them."

Neighbors joined him as Andon scoured the mud for signs of his son and sister.

"We couldn't find my sister, but we started hearing my son. He was under the mud and he was calling for help," Andon said.

Andon and villagers dug into the red soil with their bare hands. It took nearly an hour to reach his son.

"We kept calling him and asking, 'Are you OK?' He was still talking to us," Andon recalled. "I was afraid he would lose air and die. It took a long time to get to him."

When they finally reached his son, they found him lying face down on a cement block. The boy's face had landed on a hole in the cement block that had a pocket of air.

I was very afraid," said the boy, speaking through an interpreter. "It was very dark. I didn't know what happened. All I thought about was my mom and dad."

suffered cuts and scrapes throughout his body. Andon said doctors say his son will recover.

Lastlove's mother, Rampae Andon, 42, has been living on Guam for the past year, working as a housekeeper at Ladera Tower to support her family. Her husband called her shortly after their son was recovered and told her that their son survived.

Rampae Andon, whose sister was among the eight killed in Chuuk's last deadly landslide in 1976, said she immediately spoke with her employer and was able to fly to Chuuk the day after.

"I really thought my son was dead, and that my husband was just telling me he was OK," Rampae Andon said. "When I saw my son, I was so thankful. He smiled at me. I cried and said, 'Thank you, God. Thank you for my son.'"

Rampae Andon said she wants to stay in Chuuk longer, but must soon return to work. She and her husband would like their son to accompany her to Guam, but they do not have money to pay for a plane ticket.

"There are so many families affected here in Chuuk," Rampae Andon said. "People on Guam don't really know what is happening here. On Guam, we have typhoons and it (affects) the power and water. Here, people have died and the island is just suffering."

Homeless and starving

The aftermath of the disaster has rippled into all aspects of life in Chuuk, disaster officials said.

"The government is solely focused right now on assisting people affected by the landslides. We have many homeless and many of them are starving," said Tos Nakayama, chairman of Chuuk's Disaster Assessment Team.

Hundreds of people have taken refuge in schools, churches, government buildings and other facilities that have been converted to emergency shelters. Many of those shelters are filled to capacity and do not have adequate facilities. Nakayama said even government officials have taken in displaced families.

Nakayama, who also is director of Chuuk's Department of Public Works, said his employees have even collected donations from each other to buy instant ramen noodles to give to starving victims in Chuuk's islands.

"Everyone in Chuuk is trying to do what they can," he said. "But we really need help from the outside."

People remain in a state of shock and fear more landslides. Many residents say they do not want to return to their islands.

Ruben said he and other villagers in Tonoas want the government to relocate their families.

"The rain keeps coming and we worry that more mudslides will happen," he said. "We don't want to go back to our island because there is fear. There are too many dead already."