Federal response in American Samoa limited due to local fear of added debt
In one picture, a tree has fallen broadside over a building. In another a tin roof has been torn wrenched from the top of what was once a home. Since Cyclone Gita hit American Samoa on February 12, 80,000 American nationals have been recovering from mass power outages and dwindling supplies. The islands’ natural environment was as affected as its human constructs. Severe flooding and widespread landslides did their part to add to the rising cost of the damages.
Once the storm settled and the extent of the damage could be observed, Samoan Governor Lolo Matalasi Moliga made a disaster declaration request, which President Trump approved. Since his filing for the declaration, however, Matalasi has refused to accept all aid to the region. American Samoa is required by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to repay a full 25 percent of the costs of FEMA’s response. Given that preliminary estimates of the cyclone’s damage are currently surpassing ten million US dollars, it is unsurprising that the Governor is now awaiting further assessment before he declares American Samoa to be in need of further relief.
It is fortunate that the more hyperbolic estimates of human damage as a result of the cyclone now seem a touch melodramatic. The flow of patients to several clinics, the Tafuna Community Health Centre among them, has been steady — not overbearing. One employee, Dr. Saipale Fuimaono, has said “There were a few cases in the first few days, especially some minor cuts, lacerations, some puncture wounds and then two or three days later, we’ve been seeing a lot of respiratory [cases] especially the kids with asthma.”
Comforting in this is that minimal lives have been lost in American Samoa. However, not all is well. The damage inflicted upon the infrastructure is very real, and proves the main concern in Gita’s case is not over the initial death toll but long-term economic ramifications. In the days immediately following the cyclone’s passing, for example, concerns were raised about the price of consumer goods. Opportunistic sellers can make a sizable profit in the wake of disaster, especially in unregulated free markets. The US Government quickly approved the state of emergency, however, and it has therefore become illegal to raise the price of certain goods by more than ten percent for the duration of the period. Necessary goods should therefore see little fluctuation in their overall cost, taking a huge weight off people most affected by the disaster.
Repair is already underway. By February 21, Army Reserve forces had begun rebuilding all over American Samoa. They are in the process now of dispensing relief supplies to inhabitants of the territory. Most of these supplies come straight from FEMA, and will count toward American Samoa’s debt for the relief, but some also stem from the American Red Cross, which asks for no such reimbursement. Figures on total damages to American Samoa remain to be seen, but in all likelihood Matalasi will stand by his decision not to accept any further aid. With a gross domestic product of $641 million, the territory does not have much wealth to spare, and there is no telling, once repairs have been made, how long it will take to get the economy fully up and running again.