Vanuatu's Agony

by Gerry Lynch last modified 16 Mar, 2015 10:10 AM

South Pacific nation devastated by record-breaking cyclone; Wiltshire churchgoer working in the region is safe and travelling home.

Vanuatu's Agony

Port Vila waterfront as the storm builds. Source: Graham Crumb, "Humans of Vanuatu".

The South Pacific nation of Vanuatu has been devastated by Cyclone Pam, the second most severe tropical storm ever recorded in the South Pacific, with winds up to 185 mph reported. Only ten deaths have been confirmed so far, but in a country of 83 islands, some very remote and with limited communications at the best of times, damage reports are still at an early stage. It is understood that the casualty figures will climb significantly. 

It seems that a majority of Vanuatu’s quarter of a million people have been rendered homeless, literally overnight. Oxfam Australia reports that up to 95% of housing in the capital, Port Vila, has been severely damaged and pilots flying over outlying islands report similar levels of devastation. Severe damage was also reported in parts of the neighbouring Solomon Islands, particularly in the more isolated east of the country. 

The Most Revd David Vunagi is Primate and Archbishop of Melanesia, covering Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and New Caledonia. He sent the following message to the Melanesian Mission, a mission agency that raises awareness of and support for the Melanesian Church in the Church of England, saying: 

Humans of Vanuatu 4.jpgThank you very much for your appeal and campaign for Vanuatu and the Pacific. Like you we are anxious to hear from Vanuatu. I tried to phone the two bishops and Diocesan Secretaries without success and my emails are still to be answered. When they do respond we will know the extent of the damage. Here in Solomon Islands, some islands in the Diocese of Temotu like Tikopia an Anuta may be badly affected but again reports are slow in coming.

“Apart from gardens (growing areas) being washed away and houses falling down in some areas, Solomon Islands is generally OK but again we are still waiting for reports.

“Thank you again for your prayers and concern.”

A statement from the Melanesian Mission added, “The Melanesian Mission is asking for prayers for the communities in Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and other Pacific nations affected by the category five tropical storm Cyclone Pam. We are waiting to hear from the church on the number of casualties and the damage caused to homes, schools and farm land.”

Elizabeth Perry, a parishioner in the Woodford Valley who works for the Anglican Communion’s international development arm, the Anglican Alliance, was conducting training on Guadalcanal, the most populated of the Solomon Islands, when Cyclone Pam hit there on Tuesday. She had been due to fly on to Vanuatu on Saturday but the devastation left by Cyclone Pam has made that impossible. With the limited resources to look after guests in the region now desperately needed for specialist disaster relief workers, she has now left the Solomons and is making the 36 hour journey home. 

She reported her experiences as the storm hit on Facebook. 

“Yesterday I set off from Honiara with Dennis Kabekabe to visit his project site at Hautabu, where the Franciscans have their headquarters in the Solomon Islands. We travelled with Dennis’ son Maxwell in one of the public minivans … After an hour or so we realised the journey was getting interesting as flooding became more frequent and deep. We made it across several rivers, which were now in full spate, but guessed things weren't looking good for reaching our destination when we came to a road sign saying ‘ford’. What presumably is normally a gentle stream was now a fast flowing, turbulent river, at least twenty feet wide and how deep was anybody’s guess. Just to confirm this was journey’s end, the locals told us that the bridge near Hautabu (only a few more miles away) had been washed away. Turning back to Honiara wasn’t really an option as the light would soon be gone and with the rivers rising travelling back would be dangerous. 

“It turned out there was a home-stay a short way back along the road, a kind of eco-resort without the resort bit. But it did have accommodation available and a small supplies shop so after sharing a meal of bread and anchovies with Dennis and Maxwell I spent the night in my very own woven hut on the shores of the South Pacific ocean, lulled to sleep by the roar of the ocean, the wind ripping through the coconut palms and the pounding rain. I had visions of being stranded there for several days but was surprised to discover the river levels were dropping this morning. A minibus came along at around 8am and we continued on our journey.

“The next challenge came when we reached the bridge near Hautabu that had indeed been washed away. We waded across the first bit of the river and then had to use a fallen palm tree to reach the other side. It wasn’t my finest hour, but I was acutely aware of the camera equipment in my backpack, so was extremely grateful for the proffered hand-holding as I walked the plank/palm tree. 

“And so I arrived at Hautabu, a remote spot in tropical rainforest overlooking the Pacific Ocean on the north-west corner of Guadalcanal, feeling like a triumphant explorer of yore – and was greeted by Sue from Hilfield Friary in Dorset offering to put the kettle on. That’s when we found out the heavy rain and wind were the edge of a cyclone… 

“The journey home was gloriously uneventful, even if the minivan had an improbable quantity of people and produce on board.” 

Humans of Vanuatu 6.jpgVanuatu and the Solomon Islands are two of the most heavily Anglican countries in the world, with around a quarter of the population in both nations belonging to the Church of Melanesia. The Church is a major provider of education and social services in both countries, and has the strongest presence of religious brothers and sisters in the entire Anglican Communion. Local sources are requesting support from Anglicans internationally, both in terms of prayer and practical support.

Vanuatu is no stranger to storms, with an annual cyclone season, but several storms in recent years have been of an intensity not seen in the past. The Atlantic reports:

“Alas, devastating cyclones may become more commonplace in Vanuatu, a low-lying nation considered extremely vulnerable to climate change. Roughly three quarters of the population of 267,000 work in fishing and agriculture, two industries sensitive to rising sea levels and warmer temperatures. Prolonged dry spells have begun to threaten the country's water supply, while intense rainstorms have damaged staple crops like cabbage.

“Scientists have warned against attributing single weather events to climate change—even storms the size of Cyclone Pam. However, a report commissioned by the Australian government predicts that regional cyclones will only be more intense.

Humans of Vanuatu 5.jpg“Vanuatu is well aware of the risks of climate change—in 2013, the country established a ministry devoted to mitigating the risks of rising sea temperatures, drought, and other environmental disasters. But for now, the country must recover from a cyclone whose damage may not be fully realized for years.”

The government of Vanuatu has appealed for international aid. Local sources recommend at this stage, UNICEF UK is the safest and best recipient for individual donations. Their Cyclone Pam appeal page is at www.unicef.org.uk/landing-pages/donate-vanuatu-cylone-pam/ 

Learn more about the life of the Church in Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and New Caledonia via the Melanesian Mission website: melanesia.anglican.org/mmhome.html.

Social media can be a powerful source of local reports and photographs taken by non-professionals. Graham Crumb's "Humans of Vanuatu" Facebook page, from which the photographs in this article have been sources, is especially worthwhile. It's at www.facebook.com/HumansOfVanuatu

Photo credit: Graham Crumb/Humans of Vanuatu.

Second photo: devastated home in Mele Village.

Third photo: some streets in downtown Port Vila's marina area, a vital generator of hard currency income from tourism, are completely impassible.

Fourth photo: many bridges have been knocked out and roads washed away, like this one on the island of Efate.

Document Actions