Cyclone Pam: First World problems in a Third World cyclone

Exclusive for Newsroom24x7 by Paula Griffiths from Vanuatu

View from lounge as cyclone was leaving
View from lounge as cyclone was leaving

By 9 pm the wind started sounding like a train arriving. We have a mountain behind us and I knew that for the first part of the cyclone this would give us great protection. The noise of the wind as it gained volume and gusted was amazing to me. I grew up in a province in Africa where winds rarely got above 30 knots. …..By 11 pm we heard our first big noise. I went through to the lounge room and found that the one shutter had come off our huge doors leading to the veranda. The wind was not coming directly into the lounge and I secured our security mesh doors in the belief that it was better to let some air flow through the house to keep it pressurised on a par with the outside. …. I walked into the lounge room and in the light of the torch looked out and saw the veranda roof hovering up and down like some evil flying monster…..

Paula Griffiths
Paula Griffiths

I wish I could write this in such a way as to portray the fear, desperation and exhaustion of a NiVanuatu person who has just lived through a category 5 cyclone with very little other than a few sheets of corrugated iron and some poles to keep them safe. I cannot. I can only write about Cyclone Pam through the eyes of a protected well prepared European living in the beautiful country of Vanuatu.

We live on the island of Efate, in the island nation of Vanuatu. I am retired, while my husband is a businessman in Port Vila. My days usually revolve around some hens that I am keeping, my hobbies and normal life experiences on our one acre property in Havannah Harbour on the west coast of Efate. We are fortunate to live on the water’s edge, with harbour views and a lovely jetty.

We first heard of the cyclone a week before the event. We went through highs and lows,” it is tracking east, it is only going to have winds of less than 105km per hour and even it is going to miss us altogether”-was discussed by us all on an hourly basis. Then we worked out from JTWC that it was going to be a beast. Vanuatu’s last big cyclone was cylone Uma in the 80s and from what we had heard that was dreadful.

When I finally realised that it was definitely coming, I spent two days working with staff to get everything packed away in a container that we use instead of a garage. The humidity in the air must have been at 90% as I had to change out of wet clothes 3 times a day. They were wet from working outside and sweating. We had to get every single thing that could be a projectile in the wind, packed away. We took precautions like lowering the water tank off its stand, onto our flat roof (unnecessary- as one of the old folks told us afterwards, – just fill them up and tie them down as their weight is too much for a cyclone to knock down), I put a tarpaulin over my chickens’ coop and big brick blocks on top of my bee hives. (I have three bee hives).

Two days later feeling so exhausted, I sat waiting for the cyclone Pam, to arrive. There were varying reports on different internet sites saying when it would arrive but finally the consensus was that it would start on Friday the 13th March 2015 at 3pm. At that time, instead of being snug inside the house, I was outside, standing on a ladder adding bolts onto one shutter after we realised that it was not going to stay closed. The wind had started and the pressure through the cat door in the window belonging to that shutter was pushing it out. At first it was interesting to see the wind move the tree branches, then I started to get a bit anxious as the rain and wind were coming in gusts, and the banyan tree nearby with branches waving all over the place was looking ominous. This tree is over 25 meters high and no one could predict where the branches would fall in a high wind. I managed with the help of a friend who was staying with me, to get the final bolts in place. Then I had a shower, and changed into dry clothes and sat for the last time under the palm thatch roof of my front veranda. We had a jetty, this veranda and two other buildings with palm thatch roofs. We assumed they would all be destroyed. We also had a lovely 46 foot Catamaran boat which we were using for yacht charters. We were hoping that it would ride out the storm at anchor in front of our home. I enjoyed this part of the storm but all the while I was aware of the people less fortunate than I who did not have the luxury that I had. I had offered to let people stay in our annex which was a bunker type house completely built of cement and steel. However, our villagers mostly had concrete homes or cyclone rated buildings to go to so they declined my offer.

By 6 pm we started to feel unprotected with the doors and shutters on the veranda open, as the wind was no longer merely a strong gale it was gusting around our home at terrifying speeds and when we finally locked the last shutter in place we felt the push of the wind against us. A sign of things to come. Already 3 trees on my front lawn were down and lying prone on the ground. These were Wild Cherry trees and were chosen for this precise reason. I did not want trees that could break branches and become hurtling missiles. The coconut palms were strong and merely moved with the wind.

At first we assumed that we would do things like read books in the lounge or watch a DVD. I cooked a basic supper. Afterwards we cleared up the plates. By 8pm we started hearing thumps on the roof. It was noisy; I suggested to my friend that we create a safe place in my walk in cupboard. This cupboard is a concrete add on to the house. The roof and walls are all made of concrete and would be safe. It had the added bonus of being on the projected leeward side of the house. It is 3 meters long and about 1 and a quarter meters wide. We totally cleared it out and put a mattress down on the floor. I put my cat into a carry basket and tucked her away under some shelving in the cupboard. Our pillows were placed so that we could face each other while we slept, if we slept.

By 9 pm the wind started sounding like a train arriving. We have a mountain behind us and I knew that for the first part of the cyclone this would give us great protection. The noise of the wind as it gained volume and gusted was amazing to me. I grew up in a province in Africa where winds rarely got above 30 knots. I was worried about the boat as the last communication with the insurance company was that I had elected to place it in mangroves and not leave it on the mooring. This was a huge worry to me as there was a good chance that we were uninsured.

My companion had a different way of dealing with stress. She stopped talking -so I felt obliged to keep the conversation going, the sound of the wind was never that bad that we could not hear each other. I suspect if she was older she would have told me to SHUT UP, only in not such a polite way. . I remember at one point deciding to try to take my mind off things so I told her the story of Hansel and Gretel. I cannot believe I did this to the poor girl.

By 11 pm we heard our first big noise. I went through to the lounge room and found that the one shutter had come off our huge doors leading to the veranda. The wind was not coming directly into the lounge and I secured our security mesh doors in the belief that it was better to let some air flow through the house to keep it pressurised on a par with the outside. My barometer read 980. I have never used it before as I bought it at a junk sale and thought it did not work. I went back to the mattress in the cupboard. Within an hour we heard another large noise and again I went to the lounge. The second shutter had come off and I muttered imprecations against the cool trendy carpenter we had contracted with, who had put in pretty little bolts to hold the shutters in place. By this time the rain was entering into the house but the roof of our veranda was still in place and it was not a flood. The wind was loud and ominous. I moved as much furniture as I could away from the doors and shouted at my companion to stay in the passage to be safe. She mostly obeyed me but did help me move the glass top off a table for which I am grateful.

Our home at Havannah Harbour, Efate, Vanuatu.
Our home at Havannah Harbour, Efate, Vanuatu.

Back in the cupboard we started to hear a low rumbling noise. My companion Flo, made me feel so much better when she said .. “ oh that is most probably the roof vibrating.” I was hoping it was the ocean but had to agree that it had a rhythmic pattern that was not ocean–like. By Midnight we heard another crack. I told Flo to wait and I went to investigate. More shutters had come off in the bedroom that Flo was using. I walked into the lounge room and in the light of the torch looked out and saw the veranda roof hovering up and down like some evil flying monster. It definitely rang warning bells in my head that being in the lounge with now wide open doors (3 meters wide) possibly was not a safe thing to do. I got back into our cupboard and waited for the demise of the veranda roof. It is funny, we had discussed the veranda roof going in a big storm and sitting reflecting on this during the cyclone I realised that we had been incredibly naive. What had we thought? That it would just levitate, go poof and disappear? Losing a large object like that has ramifications. Was it going to bounce off our shutters and leave us exposed to the elements in our cupboard (which had no door and would only give us partial protection) or would it fly off to the neighbours, would they sue us for not having a secure roof? All these questions came to mind. What if it burst through and hit us somehow? At this point I realised that Flo had her laptop and bag in the room with no shutters, I offered to go and fetch it for her. We had shut the door to our bedroom and I almost battled to get it open to get into the rest of the house, which had high winds gusting inside. I wondered if I was doing the right thing having one pressure in the bedroom and another pressure for the rest of the house. So much we did not know that we will have to learn about for the next one. I got her things and ran back into the relative safety of the bedroom and cupboard. At this time the wind was gusting so much that it was frightening to listen to. I was aware that we were very safe in our cupboard but the noise was not something I was used to. As a precaution we had switched off our electricity and it was very hot. I would open the shutters every now and then and then close them once we had a bit of fresh air.

My three dogs took it in turns to get into the cupboard with us and snuggle with me. The small one, A Jack Russell X Shihtsu is deaf and mostly slept through the whole cyclone oblivious to the drama going on outside us. Eventually they were all so hot they preferred to sleep on the cooler tiled floors. Normally I would have forced them to sleep with me in the cupboard but Flo had a dislike of dogs and I felt for her, cyclone, dogs … all too much. It did worry me that they were unprotected but I felt if our shutters went then they would come into the cupboard. From what I had seen of the lounge and one bedroom things were not being thrown around by the wind so they would survive if the shutter went.

My husband in all this, was in town looking after his two businesses. He has two large warehouse type structures and a lot of stock, he had to stay there to wrap everything up in plastic, and tarpaulins to protect them in the event of the roof going. During the middle of the night Flo who is part French and part NiVanuatu (that surely qualifies her to have more knowledge than I regarding cyclones.. yes?) let me know that she was worried about her partner Roger and my husband. They were both in the warehouse/shop and determined to ride out the storm there to look after the businesses. She felt that the structures were not safe and sound. In my mind I knew that the structures were cyclone rated and now I had another worry to think about. It had not occurred to me before that this cyclone could cause the deaths of anyone I loved. It was not a happy thought.

I had a wind up torch and every now and then I would move the louvers in the window to try to see outside. The rain was so thick that the visibility was less than 10 meters. All I could see were some nearby palms and my cycads being hammered by the wind. The view from the bathroom window was the same. Two sandalwood trees within 10 meters were being thrown one way and then the other. It was just plain unpleasant. We realised as we heard the wind that this was a killer storm. We both discussed how many people were, right now, terrified and faced with life and death situations. This put my own situation into perspective.

The remains of our jetty
The boat was there …and this is what remains of our jetty

At one point we thought that the wind was lessening and I said “no, we are just getting used to the noise.” Flo agreed with me. By 3am Flo fell asleep and at 4.30am I found myself dozing. At 5 it started to be lighter and I could see that the wind, while strong was not dangerous. I immediately got up, went out through the bedroom with no shutters and was amazed at the new world that awaited me. My veranda roof was lying on its side, on the ground. We expected this, as I have already noted earlier in this account. After 7 years of trying to get a garden growing on this, the dry side of the island I had started to achieve some pretty areas. All were gone. My 5 Wild Cherry trees were lying on their sides. No more parrots would visit me to eat their berries. No electric blue tiny Kingfisher birds would perch there happily watching for fish below and no fruit bats would whoop over me as I walked near the trees at night. My bees who love these trees would be confused at the loss of their favourite nectar. I immediately went to my son’s annex, where he and a friend had holed up for the night. It was good to hear his voice. We then both went to see if the boat was there and could not believe our eyes. She looked as happy as a boat can look, riding the muddy waters as if she had not a care in the world. We were so relieved. We then walked around the back of the house and took in the carnage. I had planted more than 70 trees on my property. Almost every one of them had serious damage. The neighbour had some large Balsa wood trees (Canoe Trees) and these and others of his had been blown into my garden. My car had been hit by one branch and had a minor ding in the door. I could not get my car out of the parking area. There were fallen trees and branches everywhere. Our driveway would take at least 6 hours’ work with a chainsaw to clear a path. We had bought one before the cyclone. My three beehives all survived with nothing but three huge cement blocks on each hive to hold them down.

The wind was still strong and I was worried about my little dog who was –excitedly- wanting to go outside to see the new garden. I kept her in.

We walked up onto the roof, and surveyed the neighbours’ yards, and the forest near us. So many trees were denuded of leaves and were missing branches or were lying on the ground. It was a sorry sight but we felt good that it was over. I never want to hear wind like that again.

It took me 4 days before I had telephone, or could get to town. Our internet was naturally down and we were told it might be a year before we had phone or internet again.

A message was sent to us that my husband was waiting on the other side of the creek that was now cutting us off from town We found a truck driver who was prepared to drive us to the creek and I was so thrilled to see my husband standing safe and sound, along with Roger on the other side. They had driven here to see if we were ok and we were all happy to report on the minor damage we had had. So far our losses have been our jetty, veranda and some beautiful trees. I did lose one small chicken but I do not know how she died. My husband’s business lost part of his roof which he replaced within 3 days. All we have heard are rumours of deaths, 90% loss of homes in Port Vila, hunger. Thank goodness the Australian Army arrived and declared a curfew. Law and order was kept and therefore only minimal looting took place. Our village Tanoliu had not one death. Only one pig, some chickens and a goat have either drowned or been hit by trees. We are so grateful for that. A few houses had substantial damage and need to be rebuilt but I think that being on the west side of the mountain prevented more loss.

By day three after mopping up buckets and buckets of water, and clearing as much as I could, I was sunburnt, tired and weepy. I now understand how survivors of tragedy can just get so tired that they cannot do anything.

On day 5 I heard the creek was open for crossing for 4 x 4s. When I got there I was horrified. I had done some 4 x 4 driving but the embankment I had to go up was a bit terrifying. I did it, and got to town. Everywhere I looked there was water damage, buildings torn and boats washed up onto rocky shores or stuck on reefs. One was even sunk. There was one café open selling cakes. It was depressing to see the dull mountains which normally are a verdant green. The trees had less leaves than on my side of the island leaving everything looking drab,brown and broken. When I came home, the bridge had been repaired and I did not have to repeat my 4×4 driving down the embankment and then through the stream.

We still do not know exactly what happened on other islands, communications have been cut. We have heard stories of winds of up to 320km per hour. I have pledged to help one family here rebuild their house. We have also been giving people who have walked 20 km lifts into town. I bought 30 kilos of rice and distributed it to families in need but will have to buy much, much more. They need a year before their vegetable gardens will grow again. Until then they will mainly be eating rice, tinned fish and bully beef.

I had a first world experience of this cyclone and because we were self sufficient, we always had water and bar a few hours, – electricity. I was warm, clean and after 5 days I was feeling almost back to normal. I still have a certain feeling of dread, as if some danger could still be lurking. I will never ever be as badly prepared for a cyclone again. Strong bolts on shutters are a must and I need to understand how the air pressure in a house must work in order to avoid the roof from being blown away.