Two years ago when I moved my young family to Vanuatu, I was aware of one thing – the country’s brutal mix of beauty and disaster. The widespread islands ofVanuatu, strung together by the brilliant blue water of the Pacific Ocean, form one of the most disaster prone regions in the world. Facing everything from earthquakes to tsunamis to cyclones, my family would quickly learn the incredible resiliency of the Ni-Van people (Vanuatu people).
2014’s Cyclone Lusi passed directly over many Vanuatu islands as a category 3 cyclone, but when I think back to that storm – where we lost a few papaya trees and experienced high winds – it is simply not comparable to the intensity ofCyclone Pam.
Before the cyclone made landfall, we at ADRA (Adventist Development and Relief Agency Vanuatu) activated our emergency plans, pre-positioning relief supplies, bunkering down and waiting. We gave our staff based in Port Vila time off to prepare their own homes and families and contacted our staff working across the other islands to ensure they had a safe place to stay, and to put in place protocols for contact and movements.
The rain started early, around 8pm on Friday night. Initially my wife and I thought we’d be safest by barricading ourselves in our bedroom on the top floor of our split-level house. But at 1am, as the doors slammed incessantly, and the windows creaked under the pressure of the vicious winds, I knew we had to move somewhere safer. We quickly shuffled down the stairs in the darkness and headed to the small storage cupboard under the stairs.
My wife and I crouched in the deepest corners of the cupboard, bracing for the worst. Every creak and crash made us more tense. All the while, our baby slept peacefully, unaware of the fury being unleashed outside. We kept thinking, how much longer could it continue?
The heat inside the small, cramped cupboard grew increasingly uncomfortable. I know my wife didn’t sleep at all, the roar from the storm too loud to ignore. Every now and then we could hear loud crashes, which we would come to know were massive trees falling down around our house.
We’re lucky because our home is solidly built, but if a structure of its strength was so heavily affected, our hearts broke for what others would be experiencing. We couldn’t help but think, how were our neighbours? How were our staff? What would meet us when we emerged from the relative safety of the cupboard?
2am passed. 3am passed. Not only did the storm fail to die off, it seemed that with every hour it gained intensity. The rain came in sheets, hitting our house sideways, and even pushing through our closed windows flooding our dining room. When we looked up, we could see water dripping down the inside of our walls.
At about 4am, as the water moved closer to our cupboard, I ventured out and attempted to mop it up. By 6am, the rain persisted and the wind was still howling, but as the light snuck through the clouds, I was anxious to check on our house, and the small yacht in the bay below in case someone was still inside. But my wife urged me to stay indoors; it still wasn’t safe. So we continued to wait.
More than 12 hours after the storm had begun we were still trapped. At 10am, when the stormed finally eased and we emerged, our property was almost unrecognisable.
Our tropical surroundings were decimated. Gigantic trees felled by the road side. Hillsides bare. Roads mangled. Homes torn apart.
I had immediate responsibilities, ADRA was part of the national disaster management office’s (NDMO) pre-disaster preparation plans. We had pre-arranged to meet with other NGOs immediately after the cyclone had passed.
At this meeting, the full extent of the destruction of Pam became real. We had no telecommunication networks, the airport was seriously damaged and subsequently closed, and road networks were impassable. We had no way of getting in contact with the other islands. ADRA had local and international staff trapped on the outer islands and we had no way to tell if they were safe. Due to the limitations of contacting the other islands, our immediate focus was to care for the needs on Efate, the main island of Vanuatu.
Early on, the NDMO designated ADRA to support 10 evacuation centres around Port Vila; with the help of our dedicated volunteers and the support of our local office, we supplied hygiene and cleaning items and training, supplementary food packs, generators, lighting and hygiene kits to as many people as possible – all supplies which were desperately needed for people who had fled their homes with nothing.
ADRA’s Emergency Response Team (ERT) arrived a few days after the cyclone to increase our office’s capacity to deal with the sheer magnitude of the emergency response.
From those initial NDMO meetings, to now, almost three weeks later, it’s been a blur of late nights, early mornings and countless meetings. ADRA, who has been working on long-term local development projects since 2008, now has three response and recovery projects approved with the assistance of various overseas donors. These projects which will provide increased assistance for 1,000 households on Ambrym and Efate Islands.
Through coordination with partners, we’ve been able secure additional food parcels, water filtration units, shelter kits, seeds, gardening tools, and hygiene and sanitation items. This will provide the families with the tools they need in the short-term to look to the future with confidence.
Although it’s still early days, we, and I speak broadly to include other NGOs, have learned lessons from this response and subsequent recovery, which will help us to better respond to the next emergency.
But one great outcome from this, if you can ever have a positive outcome from a cyclone, is seeing ADRA’s community disaster committees (CDCs) and the local provincial disaster committees coordinating and functioning well.
Our CDCs are groups set up within villages represented by a large cross section of the community, for example, the chief or leader, women, youth, and people with disabilities. These groups work to mitigate the effects of disasters. This includes identifying safe houses, putting aside emergency provisions, making sure vulnerable people within the community are cared for, and planning how to rebuild post-disaster.
In all areas which ADRA has established CDCs there were no deaths. This is a statistic we’re really proud of. What I’m also proud of is the way our Ni-Van volunteers have dug deep and worked day in and day out to be an integral part of our response. Despite the road to full recovery looking long and hard, Ni-Vans continue to flash their famous friendly smile. And it seems if we can continue to do that, perhaps we’ve learnt their secret of resiliency too.
Mark le Roux is Vanuatu country director at Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA). Follow @ADRAIntl on Twitter.