On March 13, a cyclone of historic proportions struck the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu with winds equivalent to those of a Category 5 hurricane. The story of this disaster briefly occupied the international media and then disappeared, perhaps because the death toll was surprisingly low. The United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has confirmed only 16 deaths (some estimates are lower), though not all areas of the nation, scattered over many islands, had been reached in the count. But the ability to survive a catastrophe that robbed 80 percent of rural villagers of their livelihoods and left at least 166,000 people, more than half the national population, without food until the next harvest was the story, and local women were a large part of it.
Anne Pakoa, head of the Vanuatu Education Policy Advocacy Coalition, is the country’s 2015 coordinator for the Global Media Monitoring Project and its regional partner, Fiji-based FemLinkPacific, both nongovernment organizations dedicated to advancing the role and activity of women in communications. In the Pacific, reporting on natural disasters by community radio, Internet or mobile phone through the Women’s Weather Watch is one of FemLink’s well-developed programs. Local women support government efforts through SMS texting to prepare people for natural calamities and identify safe shelters. Within hours after Cyclone Pam moved on, Pakoa, a nurse and nurse educator who owns the small private Alesi clinic at Erakor Bridge, near Port Vila, the country’s capital, began to coordinate and post damage reports. Within days, she was leading an assessment team around her community to catalog damage and record the most urgent requests — often painfully modest, like tents — of people who live mostly outside a cash economy and have little buying power. Her accounts are, in microcosm, a story of community cooperation and strength. Excerpts follow:
A deadly silence: “People are not talking in their normal loud voices, everyone seems to be whispering. The air is smelling [of] dead debris. You don’t even hear any dogs barking. No birds singing. . . . We have not heard from our families in the [outer] islands. One of our local women’s groups is on Tongoa island for work purpose and I have not heard from them. I am very worried, but a small voice within me is saying they are O.K. I want to believe they are O.K. . . . There is no radio, no television, no electricity. Most people aren’t able to charge their phones, therefore it is very hard to communicate with our friends and families, especially those in the islands.
“It is terrible! A chicken farm on Teoma was destroyed. Hundreds of chickens were collected from the roadsides and bushes. A local woman had sacks and sacks full of them, selling a whole sack with over 12 chickens for only 300 vatu [$3] or 50 vatu [50 cents] each.”
The Erakor community assessment: “Over 40 youths were mobilized to carry out this assessment . . . done systemically using a questionnaire encompassing 3 subsections: 1. health and disability, 2. gender, children and education, 3. shelter, food and water. Erakor Bridge is a residential area [and small beach resort] with a total population of 1,870 people representing almost all the islands of Vanuatu. The people of Erakor Bridge, before the monster cyclone Pam, depended mostly on subsistence farming.
“The only privately owned school, Samasama Ernas School, runs classes from kindergarten to Year 2 studies. The assessment report shows that classroom is partly damaged and needs repair. There are leakages everywhere. The library books are all destroyed. . . . Three female teachers’ houses are all destroyed and they are very worried about not getting paid. If parents don’t pay school fees they are afraid that meeting the cost of staff salaries will be a problem, as they are pretty much dependent on school fees. The owner of the school also uses her house as an evacuation center and she knows the difficulties the parents are already facing. It will be hard for her to chase up fees. She and the other 2 teachers also face difficulty. Their needs at the moment would be 9 tapolens [tents or tarpaulins] that she will use temporarily while working on the rebuilding their school [plus] a water tank for school children.”
The human cost: “Thirty plus people have reported to have been injured and treated for cuts from mostly nails, timber and iron sheets. Most of these injuries happened after the cyclone. Thirteen out of these 30 people have sought treatment at Alesi Medical Center, while 3 were referred to Vila Center Hospital due to the severity of the injury. A male 55 years old was admitted with severe abdominal pain who was then referred urgently for an emergency appendectomy. Apparently his appendix broke while he was running with his sick wife’s heavy cooking-charcoal stove, made from pure hard cement, to one of the evacuation centers.
“At Alesi Medical Center, 38 people have been treated with coughs after drinking unboiled water after the cyclone. while 19 people reported to have had or are having diarrhea. Medical supplies for this disaster relief period is provided by Ministry of Health. Dr. Graeme Cumming is a relief doctor from Brisbane [Australia], who is assisting us seeing patients at the clinic . . . also brought in with him many medical supplies. The clinic offers free treatment in the wake of the storm.”
Frail houses gone: “Out of the total number of 122 households, 13 households or families lost their homes due to massive destruction caused by cyclone. These 13 households are to date still residing with their families, and some of them [are] still at the evacuation camps. The rest of the 109 households lost largely their kitchens, bathrooms and toilets, while a substantive amount of repair is required to repair the damage of their houses, mostly on roofs.
“Out of the 122 households, 100 kitchens were destroyed, while the rest were partly damaged. Many households use bush toilets, built normally with used iron sheets or tapolens. According to the assessment: 98 percent of the toilets are destroyed. During 48 hours without water, people’s lives were at risk of catching diseases, such as diarrhea.
“Families who lost their kitchens have no cover over their heads to cook their meals, [so] they are cooking outside. Families who don’t have bathrooms to use are using the sea to bathe, especially families who don’t have water. Some families wait until it is dark before they bathe, which is not very safe for women and young girls. Families who lost their toilets said they either use their neighbors’ toilets or they go to the bush, and even the beach if they live near the beach. . . . Women and girls do not feel safe anymore at night, especially when they have to find a toilet to use or even wait to have a bath when it is dark.”
Rebuilding with scraps: “Of the families that have lost their roofing and even walls, most of them use back their own iron roofing or find other roofing, which has been taken in by the cyclone. All the iron roofing that they collected were bended, which they had to straighten them with hammer. Apart from collection of items after the cyclone, which they can use to replace their roofs and walls, the families confirmed that they will need [more] corrugated iron sheets. Most of these families don’t even have paid jobs, which already are elevating their level of stress about not being able to find replacements for their walls and roofing.
“When asked about what materials they need to use to repair their houses, the following materials were mentioned: corrugated iron sheets, cement, nails, tapolen, timber, Masonite, hand saw, jig saw, circular saw, hammer, nails, knifes, spades, croupa [farming tool] mesh wires, water tanks, bench bars.”
Real stories: “Mrs. Y confirmed 22 family members living with her and her 2 children since the cyclone. Her husband divorced her as soon as she gave birth to their second child. ‘I don’t know what to do anymore,’ she said. ‘I don’t have a job, but since my extended families came to shelter under my roof, all their homes are gone! I can’t even sleep well, as I worry about what my children will eat. . . . I must find food for all of us.’
“Mr. X has 12 people under his roof to care for, to make sure they sleep, eat and drink water and to help them get back on their feet. ‘I don’t work; me and my family live from our garden,’ he said. ‘We sell some of the vegetables at the market to make enough money to pay for soap and candles. But now that we lost our garden, I told my children that we will eat noodles but only once a day, as more meals will cause every one of us to starve.’ “
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.