2009-10-15 / Front Page

Islander will return to American Samoa in wake of tsunami

By Eileen M. Daly

Islander John Enright spent 26 years preserving historic landmarks on the island of American Samoa. But many of those landmarks were wiped out when a tsunami hit the islands of Samoa and American Samoa late last month.

As the historic preservation officer for American Samoa, Enright worked directly under the governor. He participated in hazard mitigation meetings and coastal resource management meetings that were designed to prepare for natural disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis. During these meetings, Enright said, scientists reassured him that the village of Leone – where many historic landmarks were located – was unlikely to be damaged.

“The scientists were wrong,” Enright said.

In fact, the village of Leone suffered severe damage during the recent tsunami.

“About one-third of the village was destroyed, including the center of the village where many of the historic landmarks were located,” he said.

Enright described the island of American Samoa as a “volcanic island” at risk for earthquakes and hurricanes, as well as tsunamis. Still, the village of Leone was thought to be safe from severe damage because of its location, he said.

“They felt that Leone would not be damaged because there would be no way for the wave to run up hill,” he said. “It is very steep around that area.”

Pago Pago, the capital of American Samoa, was also heavily damaged – but that was more expected, Enright said, due to its location in the harbor.

“We knew that the harbor was a concern, but scientists did not anticipate the damage that was done in a lot of the other areas. I know there are a bunch of scientists on their way over there now to figure out what went wrong,” he said.

Enright will likely make the trip himself within the next couple of months to assist with the historic sites, he said.

“The National Park Service has asked me to help out with my old office. There is a lot of bureaucracy and paperwork that will need to be dealt with,” he said.

Enright retired from his position as historic preservation offi cer for American Samoa and moved here to Jamestown two years ago with his wife, Connie Payne, a ceramicist. Raised in Buffalo, N.Y., Enright attended graduate school in Berkeley, Calif. and ran a publishing company in San Francisco before relocating to American Samoa.

“It was 1981 and Ronald Reagan had become president when I decided to leave. I had worked in Hong Kong for a while and ended up accepting a teaching position in American Samoa. I didn’t think I was going to stay for a quarter of a century though,” he said.

Although he and his wife still have friends and family in American Samoa, Enright said that no close friends or family members were killed or badly wounded in the tsunami.

“I understand there were four waves in all, with some minutes separating each one. The whole thing took around 20 minutes. I’ve heard various estimates, but it seems that the total death toll is around 190 for the whole archipelago,” he said.

Enright hadn’t planned on returning to his work as historic preservation officer in American Samoa. Instead, he has spent his time here in Jamestown working on his historical novel, Commander Terhune. The novel, which is in the process of revision, is set in American Samoa during the Naval occupation years, Enright said, and is about a U.S. Naval governor of American Samoa who committed suicide there in 1920 during a period of native unrest.

“During the 1900s, the Navy claimed the place. The governors were all appointed Navy officers and that didn’t change until after World War II,” he said.

Enright’s last project as the historic preservation officer in American Samoa was to publish a non-fiction book about the Naval period in Samoa. The new book is a fictionalized account of that time, Enright said.

The basic events are true occurrences, but the characters, especially the female characters, have been fictionalized.

“There aren’t a lot of records of the women involved so I had to make that up,” he said.

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