2015 Cyclone Pam on Tanna
Videos from this trip
On 14th March 2015 Vanuatu was struck by the cyclone Pam, one of the strongest in recorded history of the South Pacific. One of the most afflicted area was the island of Tanna. The mission school of Lowanatom, in which I am working, was completely destroyed by the cyclone, save for the teacher‘s houses and the 11th grade’s classroom. I am staying on the island to help the recovery of the life here. I will try to write more soon …
... much later ...
Vanuatu experiences cyclones about each year. A few days before coming of the cyclone Pam it is clear, though, that this is going to be an exceptional one. We are sending all of our students back home, so they can be with their families. We prepare school buildings for a strong wind. Wherever possible protective sheets are nailed on windows and fragile equipment is covered by plastic tarps. We wait. Friday the 13th evening the mobile network shuts down. Shortly after it the power grid shuts down too. We spend the night in complete darkness. The morning does not greet us with sun, but with strong wind under lead-dark clouds. At around 5AM the hell unleashes. The wind trips all leaves from trees. As it blows stronger, it breaks weaker branches … then even the stronger ones … thinner trees are breaking like matches and even aged trunks of majestic banyan trees are suddenly lying on ground. Visibility drops to one or two dozens of meters. The dreadful sound of the storm is so strong, that I don’t hear anything particular even when the large roof of the boy’s dormitory in front of my own house suddenly rolls over itself and flies away under the pressure of the wind. Through slits around windows and beneath doors my tiny house is flooded with water in a way that I can hardly keep up with removing it. The few of my most important belongings are packed in a waterproof bag in case my house loses its roof too and I survive it. Although … where would I go anyways? From time to time I open the door against the pressure of the wind and go a few steps next door to check on my neighbor Bertrand, a math teacher. He is crouching with his entire family in one room of this house. We share a few words so we don’t feel alone in the middle of the disaster. His roof is hit by a large branch and the corrugated metal sheets are now rattling and threaten to go away. Outside branches and pieces of metal roof sheets are flying, able to cut man in two. I am not afraid. No time to think much and be scared. I just try to chase the water away from my house and at times observe what happens outside. It is a suffering, like the way of cross. Long and painful. Good God, when is it ending?
The wind slowly turns around. For hours, it attacks us from the south, then from the south-east, from the east. Late in the afternoon it looks like if the sky was going to become clear. I realize that it is only the eye of the storm, which is now passing close to the western shore of the island. And then the wind strikes again. From the north, then from the north-west. Around 2PM it is finally possible to walk outside without being blown away. I go out carefully and walk down to see the brothers on the mission. While passing through the school I have the impression that the end of the world has come. There is probably not a single roof that stayed unharmed. The devastation is omnipresent with deformed roof metal sheets and branches lying all around. Old mango trees, that were providing shade to our students during breaks are standing all broken or lying uprooted on the ground. The administrative buildings are completely destroyed. The church has lost most of its roof. There is only the concrete slab left from what was the kitchen of the brother’s house on the mission. Over their jeep is lying an uprooted coconut tree. The brothers are hidden in the main room of their house, which survived. But their private rooms have lost the roof and are now open to the wind and the rain. Brother Antonio says I am insane to come here in such a weather, but I had to know how are they. The sea is swollen in a way I have never seen. I don’t even dare to guess the height of the waves. Is there going to be a tidal wave after the cyclone?
Later the day I walk through the village. The usual pathways became an impenetrable mess of tree trunks and branches. Among ruins of houses are passing people … my friends and parents of my students. They collect what was left after the storm. I am expecting tears and helplessness. They smile to me instead. They are glad we see each other and that we are alive. A strange sensation. Tonight I am going to sleep with a slight feeling of guilt. I am one of very few, who will lie down on a dry bed. Or on any bed at all. I think of my friends in villages deep in the jungle, in feather-light bamboo huts, which must have been the first ones to be smashed by the cyclone. How are they spending this night?
The morning after. Over the hills of western Tanna the sun is rising. I look from the window of my room and the landscape around looks like pictures from the first world war, like Verdun. Bare land with stumps of trees. As far as the eye sees all is devastated. With my fellow teachers we start an interim clean-up around our houses. We slowly realize the extent of what has just happen. Get ready for weeks, or rather months without running water, electricity and communication.
Two days after the cyclone we go with my colleague Jeff to the Lénakel hospital. All around it is the same picture. Houses in ruins, broken trees. The lush green forest covering the island ceased to exist and it now looks rather like a brownish stubble field spread on the hills. Jeff is a medic and gives his hands as a volunteer in the hospital. In next days first humanitarian teams are appearing in the hospital, as well as the French army. I translate for them into local language for patients, that slowly come from every part of the island. In afternoons I volunteer as an IT specialist with the promptly established office of the WHO. There is plenty of work and it helps one not to think too much about all the destruction around. The work makes days fly fast. About three months after the striking of the cyclone we manage to put the school back into at least a provisional functioning. We start teaching again, but the reconstruction of the school and indeed of the entire island will still take a long time. I am writing these lines with an immense gratitude to all organizations, volunteers and donors, who helped us to stand up on our feet again.