Surviving a Tsunami — Toma’s Story

World Tsunami Awareness Day 2017

Gizo, Solomon Islands, at dusk. The harbor and many buildings in Gizo have been rebuilt after the 2007 Tsunami. Photo: Florian Witulski/UNDP

The blue waters around the small island of Gizo have been a lifeline for the people who live here. But on 2 April 2007, the ocean they depended on for so much turned on them. As Marama Terikano Toma remembers, it began with a fearsome shaking and shuddering of the earth.

As her home rocked violently, she picked up Jared, her two-and-a-half-year-old grandson, and held him tight in her arms.

People were screaming and running outside. She says, she screamed at them to come into the house.

She was certain the earth was going to tear open and swallow them up. A little while after the earth stopped quaking, Toma and her neighbors gathered outside. Then they noticed the ocean receding, exposing a massive stretch of beach. We had never seen that happen before, says the 62-year-old Toma. People were running towards the beach to see the phenomena; fish were being left behind.

The waves reached up to 12 meters when the Tsunami hit the Solomon Islands in April 2007. Photo: Florian Witulski/UNDP

Then, she says, she saw the ocean frothing and foaming a giant mass of bubbles in the distance. Toma describes it almost like the “water was boiling.” And then it was racing towards them. Panic set in. People were now fleeing away from the ocean. She held Jared tight in her arms, and she ran as fast as she could, she says. But she wasn’t fast enough. The force of the tsunami catapulted her forward, Jared flew out her arms, she went under water. She found herself stuck under a palm tree terrified and breathless. She could not get out from under it, she says. Another wave of water lifted the palm tree just enough for her to squeeze herself out.

She burst to the surface gasping for air. Desperate and weak she recalls floating on her back pushing her arms to propel herself deeper inland. She came up against another palm tree and straddled it, hanging on for her life. It was hours before the waters receded, Toma says. When she could finally stand, she moved further up the hill into the bush.

Dark clouds on the horizon of Gizo Island as Marama Terikano Toma walks along the beach that bears many memories. Photo: Florian Witulski/UNDP

The tsunami had reduced homes to rubble, the Titiana School was gone, and there was no food to eat. The hours and days that followed were filled with trauma and anxiety, she says. Two days later they found Jared’s little body in the bush. When Toma talks about it her eyes well up with tears. She can say little more. As they picked up the pieces of their life, Toma’s family like many others moved to live higher on hill, away from the ocean. She could no longer go near the ocean, not even bear to look at it, she says. Nights brought little sleep, for fear that another tsunami was coming. The roar of the ocean that once lulled her to sleep left her lying awake in terror.

According to Toma, it took more than a year but slowly people started moving back, living lower down the hill. She and her family followed. Now nearly 10 years later they live about 15 meters from the water. The wave that took the life of her grandson and devastated so much of her life is still a strong memory, but so is the lure of the ocean. The sea is our life, she says, we can never move away from it.

The sea water reached up to the top of the palm trees when the tsunami struck Gizo. Photo: Florian Witulski/UNDP

For more information on our work on Disaster Risk Reduction in Asia and the Pacific, please visit: https://goo.gl/18zVUW and http://bit.ly/2ydYUr2

Story by: UNDP / Cedric Monteiro | Photos: Florian Witulski | © 2017 UNDP Bangkok Regional Hub

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