Quake Damages NOAA Observatory

Station Chief, Family, and Groundskeeper OK after Tsunami, Communities Devastated

October 5, 2009
The second of four tsunami waves innundates local buildings.

The second of four tsunami waves inundates local buildings.

Third tsunami wave covers the hood of Mark Cunningham's truck.

Fourth tsunami wave covers the hood of Mark Cunningham's truck.

Destroyed building on American Samoa.

Above and below: Destroyed buildings on American Samoa.

Destroyed buildings on American Samoa.

Photos by Mark Cunningham/NOAA

Mark Cunningham, Station Chief of NOAA's baseline atmospheric observatory in American Samoa, has reported that he, his family, and the observatory's groundskeeper are fine following a major undersea earthquake in the region, which triggered deadly tsunami waves, although the home of NOAA's groundskeeper was destroyed. At least 140 died Tuesday, Sept. 29 on the islands of Samoa and American Samoa, according to news reports.

Cunningham works for NOAA's Earth System Research Laboratory, which runs a network of five baseline atmospheric observatories, which are the backbone of several comprehensive monitoring networks that gird the Earth from north to south, continuously monitoring the composition of the atmosphere and solar radiation. The American Samoa observatory sits on the northeastern tip of Tutuila Island, on a ridge about 42 m above the South Pacific Ocean.

Jim Butler, Director of ESRL's Global Monitoring Division, has been speaking with Cunningham by mobile phone at least briefly every day since the earthquake and tsunami. Cunningham updated his boss on the status of the NOAA observatory, and told him about ferrying people from devastated, low-lying areas to the higher observatory site, and providing shelter. The NOAA observatory has become the second largest designated shelter area in American Samoa due to its elevated location and substantial self-supporting infrastructure, including electrical generation capacity.

"Once again, Mark is a hero when heroes are called for," Butler said. "We owe him a lot." Cunningham received a Bronze Medal from NOAA's Workforce Management Office in 2005, following the Category 5 Cyclone Heta in January 2004. The award praised Cunningham's service in restoring operations to the Samoa Baseline Atmospheric Observatory, which had been pounded by 90-foot-high waves.

Cunningham reported that he was driving to work Tuesday morning when his wife called to tell him there had been an undersea earthquake. He asked her to get herself and their child to high ground immediately, and proceeded toward the observatory. Near the village of Fongaitua, Cunningham saw the sea quickly recede, and then an initial wave washed over the road. He quickly drove about to a higher, sheltered spot.

"The second wave came in and flooded the village. The third wave battered down walls and carried away buildings. From the cab of my vehicle I watched the fourth wave crest over the hood of my truck," Cunningham wrote in an email update. "It floated the front of the truck up and spun me around in a number of 360-degree turns, finally depositing me up against the concrete terrace that I sheltered against."

Driving five miles further to the atmospheric observatory took Cunningham several hours. He stopped many times to help people who needed assistance, wading through water to help clear trees, boulders, vehicles, and dead animals out of the road. When he reached the observatory, Cunningham shut it down temporarily, turning off leaking gas lines and other equipment that might have problems. He then headed back down the hill in his truck, and started shuttling people up to the elevated observatory site from the devastated Tula village closer to sea level.

Tuesday night, about 100 people camped in the covered carport of the observatory and within the air conditioned observatory itself, Cunningham reported. He made an inspection of the observatory equipment, detailing problems as well as equipment that survived with little or no impact. Most of the damage done was due to the earthquake, according to Cunningham's initial assessment of electrical and gas lines pulled out of sockets when buildings shook, for example. He started in on repairs Wednesday, after consultation with colleagues in ESRL. Most of the observatory's instruments, which gather data on greenhouse gases, ozone-depleting chemicals, air pollutants, solar radiation and other factors, will be offline temporarily, pending repairs.

"Driving through Pago Pago was surreal," Cunningham wrote after he drove home through the island's main town the evening after the tsunamis. "It was like a bomb went off. Big fishing boats washed ashore, drainage canals full of vehicles, businesses collapsed."

The NOAA observatory groundskeeper and his family are temporarily living at the site, along with two other families whose homes were also washed away. The observatory has electricity and air conditioning provide by an auxiliary generator. Sunday, there still was no commercial electricity in the area of the observatory. The observatory's generator powers a cell phone tower and Internet node that are providing a key link in rescue communications for an appreciable portion of the northeastern part of the island.

Contact Information

NOAA requests that media, concerned colleagues, and others not attempt to contact Cunningham, who needs to remain focused on the needs of his family, his community, and the NOAA observatory. Necessary communications may be sent to Jim Butler, Director of Global Monitoring, NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory (303-497-6898)

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