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Senator lashes out at agency Director

By Fili Sagapolutele PAGO PAGO, American Samoa, (Samoa News, Jan. 20, 2010) – In American Samoa, Senate Homeland Security Committee chairman Sen. Lemanu Peleti Mauga is blaming Homeland Security director Mike Sala for the 34-deaths in the Sept. 29 tsunami, while Sala during yesterday’s hearing accused the senator of asking stupid questions and warned Lemanu not to insult his intelligence.

The exchange of harsh words between Lemanu and Sala occurred during yesterday’s committee hearing that Lemanu called to find out what happened in the September 29 disasters, as well as how the Fono could assist.

Sala recalled a House hearing last month in which an official statement was provided as to the events of that day, adding that Homeland Security staff was already at the Emergency Operation Center (EOC) when the quake occurred around 6:48 a.m. He then provided other details of the communication between the National Weather Service in Tafuna and the local radio stations.

Lemanu said he has a copy of the territorial operation plan in the event of emergency and disaster, which he called a very good plan. But, he said, it was not executed that day and he wanted to know why this happened.

Sala said the plan was executed, which included the activation of the EOC under the leadership of Lt. Gov. Faoa A. Sunia, who was acting governor at the time. However, Lemanu insisted the plan was not executed when the earthquake occurred.

Lemanu decided not to go into details of the plan but he noted a March 2009 letter from Sala about what needs to be done following a strong earthquake but again, he said nothing was done.

The Senator claimed there was a breakdown in the line of communication between the American Samoa Government agencies and that standard operating procedures were not utilized that day.

In reply, Sala said every issue raised by Lemanu regarding actions to be carried out was done and he reiterated that the EOC was activated and the emergency plan executed.

"Everything was handled that day the way it was supposed to be," said the Homeland Security director. "This is the best coordinated disaster I’ve ever experienced in my lifetime. As far as I’m concerned, it was an outstanding response [to the disaster]."

Lemanu said he disagrees with Sala’s statement adding that "if it was perfect why did people die" on that day?

"We did our best" said Sala, noting that this was a disaster and there were people, who were casualties of the tsunami because they didn’t move to higher grounds. He pointed to the people that died in a car in Pago Pago.

Sala said the government has obtained a wide range of statements regarding those who were killed in the disaster and will probably release an official report on what happened.

"Some things are beyond our control," he said, but Lemanu fired back saying that "if people died under your watch there is no such thing as you did the best you can."

Lemanu said he does not know if Sala took lightly that people were killed in the disaster, but he does not believe anyone should have died. He said a leader should be a strong leader and at the forefront at the time of a disaster. Lemanu pointed out that during his 20 years in the military, only one person died under his watch.

"Don’t say that you did the best you can because 34 people died under your watch," Lemanu told Sala, and pointed out that the government didn’t do a good job in the coordination of efforts following the earthquake.

For example, Lemanu said he was at his office at the Fono when the quake occurred and then immediately the tsunami came ashore and he headed towards higher ground. At the same time, he witnessed four or five police officers doing the same instead of protecting the public they were sworn to protect.

Sala, during his exchange with Lemanu, said that his role is the ‘state coordinating officer’ and everyone in American Samoa including the Fono and other government agencies is responsible for taking responsive action as outlined in their individual plans.

Sen. Lualemaga Faoa offered his comment, saying that it is the responsibility of the coordinator to make sure people are safe and if someone dies— that is not the responsibility of the whole community.

Lemanu claimed that Sala is not aware of part of his work as coordinator and asked if Sala is aware of what is missing from his duties on that day? Lemanu also asked if Sala knows his mission as a coordinator?

Sala replied that every American Samoa Government agency, including the Fono, has their respective plans in the event of a disaster. He said he is not the boss of all agencies because everybody has their own responsibilities.

"Don’t ask me stupid questions. Ask me some wise questions," he told Lemanu. "Are you blaming me for the deaths? Don’t insult my intelligence."

Sala said the discussions and decisions come from the governor, who heads the government, and is distributed to others down the ladder.

"Mine was not a stupid question. You don’t know your role as coordinator!" Lemanu told Sala. "I blame you for what happened. If you can’t handle your job, resign. You are responsible from the start and you should take the lead role."

Lemanu also told Sala not to dig up other issues because he knows much more about what happened on that day as well as other information about Sala and his role— but didn’t reveal the details.

Lemanu also said that Sala should know everything about each agency’s emergency plan and again questioned Sala’s work as coordinator.

"I don’t know your qualifications— and don’t question my qualifications because I know my qualifications," Sala told Lemanu. "Regrettably people died, but it was beyond my control."

Lualemaga quickly interjected with a motion to postpone the rest of the hearing to another time, and told Sala to show respect when he comes before the Senate chamber. Lualemaga also asked the committee clerk to strike from the committee’s record of the hearing, Sala’s statement, not to ask stupid questions.

The hearing proceeded for about ten more minutes with Lemanu asking about the evacuation plans for Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) Medical Center and the Territorial Correctional Facility.

Sala said the hospital’s plans call for moving to higher grounds behind LBJ and that the American Samoa Government is writing a grant for the federal government to fund evacuation routes on island.

Department of Public Safety official Terry Letuli told the committee that the Tafuna Correctional Facility (TCF) is evacuated through the back road heading to the Juvenile Detention Center into a safer site as identified in their plan.

Lemanu said another problem during the tsunami was looting, to which Letuli said saving lives was a priority on that day with police officers dispatched to villages in need of help such as Pago Pago. He said looting became "secondary".

The Senator said he has some points and issues he wants to share with Sala to assist homeland security and if needed he is always available. He said a question that is asked of a leader is: "are you willing to sacrifice your family ... to save lives in the territory?"

Lemanu said this is an important question, but added that this is a general comment and didn’t want Sala to reply. When Lemanu asked the question twice, Sala wanted to reply, but Lemanu said "no".

At the end of the hearing, Sen. Alo Dr. Paul Stevenson requested a written report on all current emergency response plans as well as improvements being made or proposed. Lemanu said the committee will also need a report on the siren alert system which has been reported by the media.

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