Tuesday, January 5, 2010
When America Samoa was hit by a tsunami in September, Ifo Pili wanted to help.
"My first thought was to send containers of food and bottled water down there," said Pili, Eagle Mountain's assistant administrator and former Philadelphia Eagles lineman. Pili was raised in American Samoa, and his father still lives there.
But when he took a trip to this homeland with former BYU football teammates Reno Mahe and Gabe Reid to deliver a donation from the NFL, Pili saw a greater need: jobs.
Having raised $5,000 on his own, Pili is looking to do more to help with American Samoa's long-term recovery from the killer waves and a depressed economy.
"What they really need is money and materials to rebuild," Pili said.
On Sept. 29, American and Western Samoa were lashed by a series of tsunamis triggered by a magnitude 8 earthquake off the coast. More than 100 people were killed.
Pili said his relatives in Samoa were safe, as they were living on high ground. But he said the waves washed away buildings. When Pili arrived on the island, most of the damage was cleaned up, but from the empty foundations and the vacant land he knew were once occupied by buildings, the devastation was clear.
He said the Samoans, like Utahns, are a self-reliant people who had already rolled up their sleeves and started recovery work by the time aid workers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency arrived on the scene. Pili said the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Red Cross were also involved in relief efforts.
After the tsunami, Pili worked with Project Reach Out in Utah to raise money for relief efforts. The fundrasing included a charity golf tournament at The Ranches Golf Course in Eagle Mountain.
Mayor Heather Jackson said she was pleased the city could help Pili with his fundraising. In addition to offering The Ranches, the city also allowed Pili to take the time he needed.
"Eagle Mountain is a city that is all about community and helping people in need," Jackson said.
After the city fundraisers, Pili got a call from Mahe, his former teammate from BYU and the Philadelphia Eagles, inviting him to go down to American Samoa to present a check from the NFL for tsunami relief efforts. They were accompanied by Reid, who had gone on to play with the Chicago Bears. Pili said the NFL contribution was a recognition of the number of Samoans and
Tongans who play professional football.
Pili's first instinct was to bring food, but he used the trip to investigate, instead. And that is when he learned two things.
First, bringing food and water would have been the worst thing to do. Samoan stores were already full of food and water, and relief supplies would have hurt those businesses.
Second, the tsunami wasn't the only disaster to strike American Samoa at that time.
Pili said one of American Samoa's major industries, a tuna cannery, closed on Oct. 1, two days after the tsunami, for reasons unrelated to the natural disaster, and that left 3,000 Samoans out of work. The cannery workers represent almost 5 percent of the territory's population.
"That was just as devastating to Samoa as the tsunami," Pili said of the cannery closing. In a way, the tsunami was a blessing in disguise, as it brought aid money and hotels full of aid workers to the island at a time when its economy was taking a hit. Otherwise, he said the world would have taken little notice of the island's financial woes.
He used $1,000 of the $5,000 he raised for goods in Samoa to help rebuild. The rest he gave to American Samoa Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters, a coalition of aid agencies.
Pili came home with the idea for doing more fundraising to encourage micro-credit loans to help Samoans get back on their feet and rebuild not just their houses, but their businesses.
His next fundraising idea is to organize the world's largest luau. He hasn't set a date yet, but is looking forward to getting in the records books and helping Samoans as well.
He's not alone in helping Samoans rebuild their economy. Paul Alan Cox, a former BYU ethnobotanist and chairman of the Seacology Foundation, has raised $76,000 to help Samoan communities affected by the tsunami establish eco-tourism businesses in return for preserving rain forests and other natural resources.
Cox said the tsunami is scaring off tourists, creating a one-two blow to the Samoan economy. But he said Seacology's grants should help.
"[Samoa] is a delightful place," Cox said.
He said Samoa's non-voting congressional representative is lobbying to get the tuna business back as well.