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Disaster Risk Reduction and Resilience from an Indigenous Perspective

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Disaster Risk Reduction & Resilience: The Indigenous People of American Samoa Set an Example

When planning for emergencies and disasters, current guidelines provide little in the way of how to effectively incorporate indigenous people into the planning - it mostly indicates the necessity of their involvement.

How to effectively incorporate their culture and values is a critical part in ensuring their safety and cooperation, and just might provide some needed guidance for everyone else.

American Samoa and the 2009 Tsunami

A recent study regarding the indigenous people of American Samoa and the 2009 tsunami efforts may help set an example for others. The indigenous community played a large role in providing Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) and community resilience during the tsunami, even saving the lives of hundreds by issuing early warnings to protect villages.

American Samoa is located in the South Pacific Ocean and consists of small islands and coral atolls. Since the main islands are formed from volcanoes, inner lands are steeply sloped and mostly uninhabitable. Most of the population reside along coastal areas on low-lying lands, placing them at high-risk for natural disasters and climate change impacts such as rising sea level.

American Samoa has its own constitution - providing for the election of a governor, legislature, and judiciary. Villages however, operate under traditional governance and work in parallel to the territorial government, in contrast to a hierarchical structure. The village mayor is often elected from among the chiefs or village council, affording the position respect and authority. This facilitates coordination among and between the elected territorial government and outside agencies, including non-governmental organizations.

The Tsunami Response

The report highlights the community specific leaders and groups that played a role in assisting its villages in response to the tsunami. There are five distinct institutions the study identified that exist within these villages:

  • aiga - extended family
  • matai - chiefs
  • fono - village council
  • aumaga/aualuma - young men/women
  • pulenu'u - village mayors

As locally based units, indigenous institutions are present in every community, know its layout and dangers intimately, and understand its workings and intricacies, allowing an immediate and local response to an emergency or disaster.

The role of extended family

The research shows how the aumaga are often the search and rescue teams or first responders, while the women support their efforts, a bit like the operations and logistics branches under the Incident Command System (ICS). What the report found to be unique is the aiga, or extended family, who know and account for all vulnerable individuals within the community.

This means that because the Samoan family tradition is to care for their family, disabled or elderly persons would be helped to safety if an alarm was sounded by the village pulenu'u (mayor). Everyone is accounted for because others automatically take responsibility for them in emergencies. According to the study, this allows for a high level of social capital, and efforts to help support and strengthen these institutions will help them "leverage their existing networks."

A Key Finding

A key report finding was that, because of the village governing structure, "they socially mobilize families and groups to act." Also, because the structure is inherent in every day life, reinforcement of roles and responsibilities are enforced consistently through practice and testing of various scenarios. This is complete immersion in a unit, in contrast to most emergency and disaster organizations that conduct drills and tests anywhere from once a year to once every three years.

The study's authors concluded that it is important for current FEMA policies and plans to better reflect the needs and priorities of diverse individual locations, encouraging DRR, while building social capital and resilience.

Kimberly Arsenault Kimberly Arsenault serves as an intern at the Cleveland/Bradley County Emergency Management Agency where she works on plan revisions and special projects. Previously, Kimberly spent 15 years in commercial and business aviation. Her positions included station manager at the former Midwest Express Airlines, as well as corporate flight attendant, inflight manager, and charter flight coordinator. Kimberly currently holds a master's degree in emergency and disaster management from American Public University.