By Vivian J. Malauulu
Samoans have a firm and long-standing reputation for being extremely family-oriented, deeply proud of their Polynesian ancestry, and very religious. These beliefs were epitomized for the entire world to see when, within hours of the magnitude-8.0 temblor and subsequent tsunami that devastated the islands of American Samoa and independent Samoa on September 29, hundreds of local Samoan individuals, churches, and groups set in motion an extraordinary relief effort.
“There was no hesitation– our response was immediate,” said George Malauulu, founder of The AIGA Foundation. “As soon as news broke that a natural disaster had devastated our motherland, plans were put in motion to help Samoa right away.” The AIGA Foundation is a Long Beach-based non-profit organization that assists scholar-athletes wishing to compete at the next level. Malauulu quickly tapped into his AIGA connections to build a network of volunteers to help Samoa.
Through a coalition established by local Samoan-Americans with roots in a homeland too strong to ignore, HelpSamoa.com was born. Thousands upon thousands of pounds of donated goods and monetary contributions were collected from all over the world and received at a staging area in Carson– home of the largest Samoan population outside of the tiny islands in the South Pacific. At that point, the coalition needed help getting the donations to the disaster victims. The Samoan membership of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) approached its leadership seeking support, and from there, the ILWU officers negotiated a deal with local shipping companies at the Port of Long Beach to help Samoa.
“We all had one common goal– how to get these goods in containers and on to Samoa quickly and without using the money raised to aid the victims,” said Chris Viramontes, secretary-treasurer of Local 13. “It didn’t take long for us to realize that our best, most valuable resources were our manpower and our relationship with shipping companies.”
In an incredible show of solidarity by the ILWU and mega-shipping carrier International Transportation Service (ITS), both parties agreed to an unprecedented deal that culminated in last week’s sailing of the 515-foot vessel, the Cap Tapaga, which included 15 containers en route to the islands of Samoa. ITS agreed to offset more than $50,000 worth of shipping costs in exchange for the ILWU’s labor, which accepted the responsibility of manning the entire ship operation.
For more than ten days, volunteers arrived at the HelpSamoa.com headquarters in the parking lot of the National Office of Samoan Affairs in Carson to receive, categorize, and box inventory that was later organized and loaded onto ten 20- and five 40-foot containers donated by Hamburg Sud and Polynesia Shipping Lines. Independent truck operators from Price Transfer, Inc. donated their time and services to transport the containers to ITS in time for the Cap Tapaga’s scheduled load out and departure.
What happened next no one could have anticipated. On the morning of October 14, in the pouring rain, more than 100 volunteers showed up to work for free, to work for Samoa in an incredible labor of love that would last more than eight hours. Whereas Samoan longshore workers were expected to be in full force, no one expected the ethnic diversity of the other volunteers. Representing a rich tapestry of Latinos, Asians, African-Americans, and Caucasians, there were more “longies” on hand than there were jobs to fill. Workers accepted skilled and unskilled job assignments without question, worked through breaks, and remained until the very end, capturing the spirit of the Samoan culture in a workplace usually void of anything other than blue-collar labor.
“I have been around Samoans all my life,” said volunteer Richard Guilfore. “They treat everyone like family and they share whatever they have. There is no way I could not have stepped up in support of this cause. I have a lot of love for my Samoan brothers and sisters.” Guilfore, like many other volunteers, had worked the night before and bypassed hours he would have normally been sleeping to help man the operation.
“I never really feel good when I leave work because I just don’t have that type of job,” said Paul Nishita, assistant director of Terminal Operations at ITS, who was instrumental in negotiations with ILWU officers. “But today I feel really good about what we have done. I understand why people volunteer. It really does feel good.”
The events leading up to this unique endeavor received a myriad of publicity on both sides of the Pacific – praising the efficiency of the group, the smoothness of the operation, and the heart of the volunteers.
“We are overwhelmed by the stories of how people on the mainland have come together to help us here back home,” said Cliff Uelese O’Brien, 59, Fire Chief of American Samoa. “Our small country has never been through anything like this and the loss of lives and property is heartbreaking and noticeable.” To date, some 800 lives have been lost as a result of the quake that struck 125-miles off the coast of Apia, Samoa and the ensuing tsunami, which reached more than one mile inshore.
O’Brien witnessed first-hand the destruction that ravaged his beautiful, tropical land as he and his crew underwent search-and-rescue missions throughout the main island of Tutuila. He is the father of eight grown children, six of whom live abroad and have become active members of the coalition in their current home towns.
Among the most notable contributors to HelpSamoa.com are actor, producer, and entrepreneur Wilmer Valderrama (That 70s Show, voice of Disney’s Handy Manny) who referred to himself as “the most underrated Samoan” in a public service announcement to which he lent his celebrity, as well as a homeless man who waited in line at the distribution center to donate 61 cents. Dozens of groups rallied in support of this cause, including members of the Great Oak High School football team in Temecula who took it upon themselves to collect thousands of dollars’ worth of baby items during a recent game in honor of a fellow Samoan teammate. Las Vegas Southwest Airlines employees also collected dozens of pallets of water and canned goods, which they drove overnight in order to meet the cut-off deadline for container loading.
Against the backdrop of our own sluggish economy, generous donors managed to give money, food, water, medical supplies, clothing, tools, and even toys for victims of the disaster. Beneath a shadow of dwindling work availability at our local ports, longshore workers also managed to forego a day of their modest wages for the people of Samoa. Through these efforts, the Cap Tapaga managed to set sail from the Port of Long Beach as a stunning symbol of hope for the tiny Samoan islands and pride for the remarkable culture they inspire.
American Samoa is a US territory and therefore eligible to receive FEMA aid, whereas independent Samoa (formerly Western Samoa) is not. A chartered DC-10 flight loaded with relief goods left the Long Beach Airport for Apia, Samoa on Saturday, October 17, authorized by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the request of Assemblymember Laura Richardson and Representative Eni Faleomavaega, who represents American Samoa in Congress. The Cap Tapaga is scheduled to arrive in Pago Pago Harbor, American Samoa on October 28 where it will be gratefully received by thousands of islanders who have lost everything in their native island home.
What is traditionally a labor union motto has now become a tenet for Samoans as “an injury to one” truly is an “injury to all.”
By Vivian J. Malauulu