Vanuatu: Everyone has a story about surviving the storm

Six months after Cyclone Pam hit Pacific islands, our reporter is impressed by how fast normal life has been restored.


    In Vanuatu, everyone has a story about how they survived the storm.

    When the cyclone hit on March 13, the Joe family had hid in a box normally used to store saucepans.

    Kaud Sam had to lift his house off his wife and children when it collapsed on top of them.

    Mary Vira, the principal of a primary school, cowered in a classroom with her students and her family.

    "In 1987," she says, "I was a child - my parents were in charge. It was different this time. I was the responsible one. I had to look after them."

    The reference to 1987 was to Cyclone Uma,  a Category 4 cyclone which killed 50 people. Cyclone Pam, in March, was category 5 - much stronger.

    And Vanuatu's population has doubled since 1987. Yet surprisingly few - eleven - people died.

    International journalists poured into Vanuatu in March. We expected devastation.

    Typhoon Haiyan - also Category 5 - was fresh in our minds. It had hit the Philippines in 2013 killing more than 6,000.

    Thankfully, even in March it was quickly clear that Vanuatu had not suffered such a calamity.

    There wasn't the same population in Vanuatu in the first place - and a predicted tsunami-like storm surge never came.

    Time to prepare

    What explains it? Charlie Damon, the country director for Care International, has three reasons.

    First, people had warning. She forwarded me an email she sent to her head office on March 6 - a week before the cyclone struck.

    Vanuatu learns some lessons after Pam hits island-nation

    "A tropical cyclone is heading towards Vanuatu and expected to hit Tues/Weds next week. They're predicting a Category 5," it read.

    In fact, the cyclone moved more slowly than anticipated. But when it did arrive - actually hitting the capital Port Vila on Friday, 13 March, it was every bit as powerful as feared. Nevertheless, people had had time to prepare.

    Second, for the previous two or three years, people had received training on what to do when cyclones struck. Those encouraged people to track cyclones' paths and act well ahead of time.

    As Cyclone Pam drew close, an Early Warning Centre in Port Vila sent hourly text messages to tens of thousands of people at a time, warning them of what was to come.

    Third, although a Category 5 storm is once-in-a-generation, weaker cyclones are relatively common across the Pacific.

    Over time, people have developed a general resilience: they know which buildings to shelter in - and understand that staying put is less dangerous than moving around.

    Outside Port Vila, too, most structures are made of basic, light materials.

    Plenty of those did collapse on top of people: but few, if any, died as a result. Flying iron roofs or collapsing walls were the biggest killers - Vanuatu doesn't have many of either.

    Six months on, and having spent a five days in Vanuatu, I've been impressed by how quickly elements of normal life have been restored.

    Scars from the storm are everywhere: smashed up boats are still beached, every village has dozens of buildings without roofs or walls. But there are almost as many structures that have been repaired.

    In Port Vila the obvious damage has been largely cleared away.

    There are still threats: crops have been destroyed, salt-water sprayed across fields has poisoned land, and the El Nino weather pattern has sparked fears of drought - just when regular rain is needed most.

    But no one I have talked to fears people lack enough food, or water, to survive.

    And everyone has at least some sort of shelter.

    Briefly, in March and April, Pam became one of the most common names for newborn girls in Vanuatu: mothers wanting to celebrate new life - and being alive.

    Vanuatu is not there yet, but those girls - and their mothers' stories - will long outlast Cyclone Pam's scars.

    Briefly, in March and April, Pam became one of the most common names for newborn girls in Vanuatu [Al Jazeera/Andrew Thomas]

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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