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TSUNAMI LESSON: DON’T GET TRAPPED IN A CAR Expert says many Samoans died trying to flee in vehicles

APIA, Samoa (Samoa Observer, Nov. 5, 2009) – Many victims of the tsunami died trapped inside cars as they attempted to flee to higher ground through roads running parallel to the coastline, a group of expert researchers has found.

This was the result of advice they could have misinterpreted that vehicles can be used during a tsunami evacuation, said an American academic who is an expert on tsunamis.

Professor Costas Synolakis, principal investigator and professor of civil engineering at University of Southern California, was among a group of scientists who came to Samoa last month to document the impacts of the 8.1 earthquake and the ensuing tsunami on 29 September.

In their findings, they concluded that while most villagers in Samoa knew to rapidly evacuate after experiencing an earthquake, they noted that a month earlier, people were told cars help with evacuations.

The group said this was a "deadly directive since most roads run parallel to the beach.

"Many perished trapped inside cars waiting in congested small roads or in long lines behind vehicles stopped by landslides or debris on the road," said Professor Synolakis.

"I have been on more than 20 tsunami field surveys, and in many ways this was one of the most surprising in terms of how carnage varied over fairly short distances. This was also the first time we noted what we suspected: misinformation kills."

Neither the Chairman of the National Disaster Council, Tuilaepa Sa'ilele Malielegaoi nor the Chairman of the National Disaster Advisory Committee, Taule’ale’ausumai La’avasa Malua was immediately available for comment. They are overseas.

A member of the National Disaster Advisory Committee and Commissioner of Fire and Emergency Services Authority, Seve Tony Hill, said they have never advised people to use a car when they see a wave coming.

"That’s a no, no," Seve told the Samoa Observer. "Leave your car and run. That’s been our recommendation all the time."

Seve said he knows of:

• A girl who was killed in her car

• Tui Annandale who was killed reportedly pulled out of a car by the wave

• A palagi couple whose vehicle got hit by a wave and they got out and ran.

Seve said if people have warning of up to 15 minutes or knows from the length of a tremor something is coming, it might be better to use a vehicle to drive to safety.

That is if they can drive at a safe speed – and pick up the elderly and children along the way.

But "if you see a wave coming don’t get in your car. It’s a death trap," he warned.

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