On March 14, 2015, Vanuatu was hit by Cyclone Pam, the strongest cyclone in the history of the South Pacific. One of the hardest hit areas was the island of Tanna. Lowanatom Mission School, where I work, was completely destroyed by the cyclone, except for the teachers’ houses and the 11th grade classroom. I am staying on the island to help rebuild life here. I will try to write more soon …
… much later …
Vanuatu experiences cyclones about every year. A few days before the arrival of Cyclone Pam it is clear that this will be an exceptional one. We send all our students home to be with their families. We are preparing school buildings for high winds. Wherever possible, protective boards are nailed to windows and fragile equipment is covered with plastic sheeting. We wait. In the evening of Friday the 13th, the cell phone network goes down. Shortly thereafter, the power grid goes down as well. We spend the night in total darkness. The morning does not greet us with sunshine, but with a strong wind and dark clouds. Around 5am, hell breaks loose. The wind blows all the leaves off the trees. As the wind gets stronger, it breaks the weaker branches… then the stronger ones… thinner trees break like matches and even the old trunks of majestic banyan trees suddenly lie on the ground. Visibility drops to one or two dozen meters. The terrible sound of the storm is so strong that I don’t hear anything special even when the big roof of the boys’ dormitory in front of my own house suddenly rolls over and flies away under the pressure of the wind. Through slits around the windows and under the doors, my tiny house is flooded with water so fast that I can barely keep up with its removal. My few most important belongings are packed in a waterproof bag in case my house also loses its roof and I survive. Although … where would I go anyway? From time to time I open the door against the pressure of the wind and take a few steps next door to check on my neighbor Bertrand, a math teacher. He is huddled with his whole family in a room of this house. We exchanged a few words so that we wouldn’t feel alone in the midst of this disaster. His roof has been hit by a large branch and the corrugated metal sheets are now rattling and threatening to rip away. Outside, branches and pieces of metal roofing are flying, capable of cutting a man in two. I am not afraid. No time to think and be afraid. I just try to keep the water out of my house and sometimes watch what is happening outside. It is a suffering, like the way of the cross. Long and painful. Good God, when will it end?
The wind slowly turns. For hours it hits us from the south, then from the southeast, then from the east. In the late afternoon it looks like the sky will clear. I realize that this is only the eye of the storm, which is now passing close to the west coast of the island. And then the wind comes again. First from the north, then from the northwest. Around 2 pm it is finally possible to walk outside without being blown away. I cautiously went out and walked down to see the brothers in the mission. As I walk through the school, I have the impression that the end of the world has come. There is probably not a single roof that is intact. The devastation is everywhere, with twisted sheets and branches lying everywhere. Old mango trees that provided shade for our students during breaks are all broken or lying uprooted on the ground. The administration building is completely destroyed. The church lost most of its roof. There is only the concrete slab of what used to be the kitchen of the brother’s house on the mission. An uprooted coconut tree lies over their jeep. The brothers are hiding in the main room of their house, which survived. But their private rooms have lost their roofs and are now open to the wind and rain. Brother Antonio says I am crazy to come here in this weather, but I had to know how they are. The sea is swelling like I have never seen it before. I don’t even dare to guess the height of the waves. Will there be a tsunami after the cyclone?
Later that day, I walk through the village. The usual paths have become an impenetrable jumble of tree trunks and branches. Among the ruins of houses, people are passing by… my friends and parents of my students. They are gathering what was left after the storm. I expected tears and helplessness. Instead, they smile at me. They are happy that we see each other and that we are alive. A strange feeling. Tonight I go to sleep with a slight sense of guilt. I am one of the few who will be sleeping on a dry bed. Or on any bed at all. I think of my friends in villages deep in the jungle, in featherweight bamboo huts that must have been the first to be destroyed by the cyclone. How are they spending the night?
The morning after. The sun rises over the hills of western Tanna. I look out of the window of my room and the landscape around me looks like pictures from the First World War, like Verdun. Bare land with tree stumps. Everything is devastated as far as the eye can see. With my fellow teachers, we begin to clean up around our houses. We began to realize the extent of what had just happened. We were preparing for weeks or even months without running water, electricity or communication.
Two days after the cyclone, my colleague Jeff and I went to the hospital in Lénakel. It was the same scene everywhere. Houses in ruins, broken trees. The lush green forest that used to cover the island has disappeared and now looks more like a brownish stubble field spread over the hills. Jeff is a medic and is volunteering at the hospital. Over the next few days, the first humanitarian teams arrive at the hospital, as well as the French army. I translate for them into the local language for the patients who slowly arrive from all parts of the island. In the afternoons, I volunteer as an IT specialist at the WHO office, which was set up quickly. There is a lot of work to do and it helps not to think too much about all the destruction around. The work makes the days fly by. About three months after the cyclone hit, we manage to get the school up and running again. We start to teach again, but the reconstruction of the school and the whole island will take a long time. I am writing these lines with immense gratitude to all the organizations, volunteers and donors who helped us get back on our feet.