All the Leaves are Gone…

Vanuatu - Vanuatu, sitting in the heart of the South Pacific, is known as a tropical paradise; a string of lush, verdant islands lapped by sapphire seas. Now it’s a wasteland, smashed beyond recognition by Cyclone Pam which roared over the island nation on Friday 13th.  

From the air, the islands loom out of the ocean like giant whales, or pierce the blue like dragons’ teeth. But the leafy chlorophyll canopy that normally covers them has been ripped away by Pam’s 350 kph winds.

Now these jewels are grey, sepia, dusty brown. The colour has been sucked out of them.

The trees have been snapped like matchwood, as if a giant strimmer roared across the 1,200 kilometres and 80 islands that make up Vanuatu. But it’s the leaves that the islanders are lamenting more than anything. The leaves from the Natangura tree have served as tiles for traditional roofs for thousands of years, and now they have been swept away in one massive gust.

“Obviously we can’t ship in vast quantities of leaves,” said IOM Surge Team leader George Gigauri, during an assessment mission to remote Emae island yesterday. “A new growth of leaves won’t be ready for another year, which means that tens of thousands of people will remain essentially homeless unless another solution can be found.”

IOM staff took part in yesterday’s Initial Multidisciplinary Rapid Assessment which visited six of the worst-hit islands. Serendipitously, at the end of the team’s sweaty trek to the central point on Emae (population 850) the chiefs from the island’s 14 villages had convened for an emergency meeting. The IOM and government visitors were the first contact the islanders had had since Friday and were keen to share their news.

“It was an amazing stroke of luck,” said Gigauri. “It meant we were able to get a detailed, real-time account of the damages and needs in one short visit.”

While the entire country has been devastated, some islands have spring-water sources, or access to root vegetables which have helped them survive the days since the storm. However, the story is the same from all the assessment teams: critical lack of shelter, alarmingly low supplies of drinking water, damaged or contaminated food stocks and limited healthcare.

Until the height of the storm, when all power was lost across Vanuatu, the Government’s early warning system worked incredibly well, and meant that the death toll has been confined to tens rather than hundreds. A combination of regular drills, SMS messages and radio/TV broadcasts that kept people constantly informed on the progress of Cyclone Pam, meant that most high-risk populations were in churches, schools or other sturdy buildings when the storm broke.

On Tanna, one of the southernmost islands, headmistress Mary Koresi is getting used to her new role in life as an evacuation center manager, ever since Loukatai primary school began receiving evacuees.

She and the 100 or so people she is helping to care for are in good spirits, even though life has been turned upside-down.  “We stocked up on well water but now our pump is broken,” says Mary. “Now we need blankets, mats, soap, cleaning materials and food. And I’ll have to work out how to help the kids continue with their schoolwork because I think people will be living in the school for a long time. I guess we will set up under a tree.”

Mary is not the only one already planning for the future of the education of Vanuatu’s children. Some 500 kilometres north, on the tiny, rugged island of Emae, two hours’ sweaty trek finds another worried school principal. “I’ve rescued most of the books but a lot of rain got in and I am worried about the computers,” says Richard Jenery. “I can’t test them until we get power back.”

He’s also concerned about the boarders at his 260-pupil school. While most of his students get up at 6am to walk the 7 to 10 kilometres to class, 27 come from neighbouring islands. “I’ll have to arrange for them to be sent to the capital to continue their education.” When I point out that their parents don’t yet know if their children are alive or dead he looks a bit surprised – he’s already planning for their future.

Port Vila, the small-town capital of Vanuatu is recovering well. Shops have reopened, the debris has been largely cleared, and the streetlights are coming back on. But the glittering bay and the picture-postcard sunsets mask the privations the majority of folk face.

Ponga church is an evacuation centre, hosting 60 people. Becky Kolotrip has been sleeping there with her two-month old baby Sammy for the last seven nights, and expects it will be several more months before her home is habitable again.

She describes what happened on the night of the storm: “We got SMS messages telling us to go to the nearby church so we were there even from Thursday night. When the rain got really bad the shutters blew off the windows so we held our mattresses up against the glass. We were up the whole night and the floor was soaked. There were nine babies here – we put them on the altar to keep them safe.”

Sammy has a fever, but there is no health care around. His enterprising mum ate Paracetamol before breastfeeding, and it seems to be working for now.

Outside the shelter, George Carter Iaviniau reflects on how he’s going to get his mobile video recording and editing business up and running again. He’s also worried about his crops. “We will soon have eaten all the manioc and rice and other foods we need. We lost a lot of crops, and if we replant now it will still be eight to ten months before they are ready.”

IOM is active in all the humanitarian clusters in the interagency response, and is working to assist people in evacuation shelters, as well as elaborating a plan to help people rebuild their homes. For more operational information see www.iom.int.