Tsunami killed 148+ and leveled 70 Samoan villages, some near Survivor challenge beaches; Ponderosa resort destroyed

The deadly tsunami that destroyed parts of Upolu, the island where Survivor Samoa and Survivor 20 were both filmed, killed at least 148 people, and in Samoa alone, “70 villages of 300-800 people [were] destroyed,” according to the New Zealand Herald.

The paper has a map highlighting affected areas and photo slideshow of the destruction. The map shows that in the village of Lefaga, “Dozens … [are] thought to have perished.” That’s exactly between Matareva Beach, where the opening challenge was filmed, and Return to Paradise Beach, which was also reportedly reserved for challenges. Both were on the south side of Upolu. Tribal Council and at least one inland challenge location were on the northwest side of the island near the airport and Aggie Grey’s Resort, where the crew stayed, which itself was “among the few resorts untouched,” TVNZ reported.

Among the resorts destroyed is the one used for Ponderosa–Iliili Resort, where pre-season interviews took place and publicity photos were taken. One worker told The Times, “We don’t have a resort anymore. Everything has gone. The boat, the bungalows, the restaurant — gone.” According to the New Zealand Herald, it is “now under two metres of water,” and its owner, Daniela Brussani, said that when she fled, “I look at the back, saw the big wave arrive — a big wave — six of seven metres.”

Undoubtedly, other filming locations were also affected, because as The AP reports, that the southern side of Samoa is “one flattened village after another.” Besides Samoa, both American Samoa and Tonga were also affected.

In other words, a lot of what you’ll see on TV tonight–and some things that you won’t but that are nearby–no longer look like that, or maybe not even exist. It’s even possible some locals who worked with the show in some capacity or appear in future episodes were killed. Both seasons 19 and 20 completed production long before the tsunami, and the show’s remaining non-local crew members weren’t hurt.

Does the impact on a TV show even matter in the face of a natural disaster? Actually, yes: While paying attention to a reality competition in the wake of death and destruction may seem absurd, the fact that the CBS reality show filmed two back-to-back seasons in Samoa is still a positive thing.

Besides having spectacular footage of the island pre-tsunami that allow us to appreciate what was there, it’s much easier to connect with people and places you know, and while it may be just a game show, Survivor Samoa has introduced 12 million people to a place they may not have even heard of before. (After all, how many people even knew there was a difference between American Samoa, a U.S.A. territory, and Samoa, an independent nation, before now? A lot of otherwise smart people I know had no idea.)

I’d also be surprised if CBS and Mark Burnett’s Survivor Entertainment Group don’t use their prime-time platform to help bring attention and/or raise money: besides donating supplies to locals once production is finished, the show regularly auctions off props to benefit charities.

Of course, that hasn’t stopped the overreaction to coverage of the impact on the TV show. For example, Gawker’s Richard Rushfield proved that he’s adapted well to his new job of being relentlessly snarky; he mocked a headline in The Wrap (“The Samoa Quake: Will It Impact ‘Survivor’?”) while disingenuously excluding the first sentence of the article from the screenshot. That sentence actually mocked the article itself (“From the Getting Our Priorities Straight File”). E! Online’s Gina Serpe had an equally shallow response, writing, “It’s nice to know in times like this that the world has its priorities in check. … They’re not called Survivors for nothing, folks.”

Anyone who takes the word “survivor” from the title of the TV show literally and compares that to the people who survived a horrific natural disaster is, to be honest, an idiot.

’90 percent’ of island’s housing destroyed and Entire villages wiped out as death toll climbs [New Zealand Herald]
Day of death in Samoa [TVNZ]
Samoa death toll rises to 148 as looters sift through destroyed shops and British toddler ‘swept out to sea’ after tsunami swamps Samoan resorts [The Times]
Disaster aid flows to tsunami-hit Samoas [AP]

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.