On March 13 - a Black Friday - in the middle of the night, the central islands of Vanuatu were menaced by a wicked nightmare in the form of Category 5 Tropical Cyclone Pam.
With winds upwards of 300kph, and a trajectory that followed the north-to-south alignment of the archipelago of 83 islands, it was the most destructive natural disaster in Vanuatu’s living memory.
A staggering 90 percent of physical structures have been damaged – many of them completely destroyed, including schools, communication towers, churches and dwellings.
Around 40,000 households are in need of shelter and 188,000 people are without access to clean drinking water or fresh food.
But amidst this devastation, stories of survival and resilience are emerging.
Joana, a 10-year-old girl who lives in the Blacksands area of Port Vila, recalled the cyclone’s arrival in Vanuatu’s capital.
“When the cyclone came, my aunt called for us to come inside and we ran to her house. I could hear the coconut trees falling onto the house and other things flying around.
“Where I am sitting now used to be my house but it’s gone now,” she said. “We built a little shelter where we can sleep.
“I can’t go back to school yet because the water came inside the school and damaged everything in the classroom.”
Joana’s father, Edward works on Tanna, an island in the south of Vanuatu and one that bore the full force of the cyclone. With inter-island communications impossible in the days after the cyclone, the father-of-three became desperate to get home to see if his family was all right.
Edward managed to get a seat on a flight back to Port Vila with an NGO-chartered plane. He went straight to Blacksands and was reunited with his children Susian (1), Joana, Fred (18) and his wife.
“We all cried when we were reunited,” he recounted. “I was so relieved. But then I saw the house.
“There was nothing left. Our crops had gone and there was no power on; even now it’s still not on.”
Edward said that despite losing their home and their crops and not having enough money, his priority as a father is to ensure his children’s education is disrupted as little as possible.
“It’s my duty as a father to educate Joana,” he said. “Education is her future.
“The only way to get money is to leave my family again and return to Tanna to work. I don’t want to leave them at this time but it’s our only choice.”
The Australian-Vanuatu connection
Australia is home to many people whose heritage can be traced back to Tanna, as it was one of the main islands targeted during the period of ‘blackbirding’.
Blackbirding occurred throughout the latter part of the nineteenth century when sugar and cotton plantations in Queensland sourced South Sea Islander labourers from Tanna and other Pacific Islands. Often these labourers were coerced into coming and were effectively slave labourers.
Many of their descendants remained in Australia, although population counts have varied between 4,000 and 20,000, and maintain contact with relatives in Vanuatu and other Pacific Island communities.
For Aunty Bonita Mabo, widow of land rights activist Eddie Mabo and a woman of Tannese descent, the cyclone has left the aged patron of the Australian South Sea Islander community wishing she were able to do more to help.
“It’s so sad,” she said. “My cousin’s wife on Tanna lost her life in the cyclone.
For family members in the diaspora, Aunty Bonita explained that it is difficult to experience the tragedy vicariously.
“I wish we could do something more for them – all we can do is listen to the music we have from Vanuatu, and tell stories about our family.”
But help is flowing to the afflicted islands. Australia became the leading donor for humanitarian and relief funds immediately after the cyclone, providing $8.6 million from a range of sources.
Funding to support recovery projects is however still short with another $14.7 million needed, according to Financial Tracking Service, which keeps an eye on global humanitarian aid flows.
The Sydney-based association Australian South Sea Islanders – Port Jackson (ASSI-PJ) have already coordinated the delivery of several containers of critical relief supplies to Vanuatu including tarpaulins, blankets, food and water.
As the interim national body representing the Australian diaspora, ASSI-PJ is also holding fundraising events.
The next event is on Sunday April 26 at the Addison Road Community Centre in Marrickville. The charity concert will raise more funds for those affected by Cyclone Pam.
First steps in recovery were local
Sandy Sur, a ni-Vanuatu man from Mere Lava in the north of Vanuatu said that people in the far north have been lucky.
“The cyclone damaged our houses and our crops, but it was not as severe as the rest of the country.
“But our family members who live in Port Vila, they all lost their houses. It is hard to see our villages like this, the cyclone caused so much damage," he said.
"But here in Vanuatu people just go on with life. As soon as they get up in the morning after the cyclone, immediately people started cleaning up.
As the cyclone had knocked out all telephone communications, it was impossible to connect with people over the phone. People could only help those in their own neighbourhood.
“Now that the mobile phone network is working, we are helping our families on other islands," said Sandy.
In the northern province of Sanma, where the impact of the cyclone was less devastating, communities have begun early harvests of fresh food – especially island cabbage which is the most common green vegetable – to send to families and friends in the central and southern islands.
Many hundreds of tonnes of surplus fresh food was sourced from rural villages by people on the island of Espiritu Santo and this has been shipped to various communities to provide relief to hungry people throughout the country.
It has now been six weeks since TC Pam hit Vanuatu and Minister for Lands and Natural Resources in the Vanuatu Government, the Hon. Ralph Regenvanu MP, said that the most urgent needs are still water, food and shelter.
“We are still in the process of rolling that relief effort out and we expect that to take up to two to three months,” he said. “At the same time, we are starting to talk about rehabilitation and recovery.”
But it will not be just the rebuilding of infrastructure and houses that is needed. The heart and soul of communities also need support.
Initiatives like the open-access Nesar Studio, the Namatan Film Festival, Wan Voes Kivhan benefit, and the five-day Fest’Napuan music festival will be providing important opportunities for young ni-Vanuatu to demonstrate their resilience through an arts-led, creative recovery.
As the cyclone response transitions from critical relief to rebuilding and rehabilitation, the young people of Vanuatu will play a significant role – imagining and articulating new narratives, for a new world.
Tom is a well-known figure in the cultural sector in Vanuatu, where he lived for almost a decade. Tom is a director of the Vanuatu NGO, Further Arts, and the Melbourne-based record label, Wantok Musik.