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Cyclone Pam: A photo essay from a volunteer

Cyclone Pam: A photo essay from a volunteer

By Eva Westfield, who was an Australian volunteer based in Port Vila.

Consistently rated the most dangerous countries in the world in terms of disaster risk, Vanuatu is no stranger to the destruction caused by natural hazards.

Talk of Cyclone Pam hitting Vanuatu started about a week before it descended upon us on 13 March. Still, many were convinced that the cyclone would not hit Port Vila directly until it became clear, just two days before, that it would be one of the biggest storms to ever hit the Pacific.

Those who had sturdy housing were able to see out the storm in their own boarded-up homes. Others had to bunker down with friends, leaving their homes at the mercy of the storm. Villagers packed sandbags onto their corrugated iron roofs. Many prayed, believing that God would ensure the cyclone missed Vanuatu altogether.

As night fell, the winds picked up and it was clear that Pam had arrived. Winds would reach over 300km per hour in some parts of Vanuatu. [fold]

Over the course of the night, the cyclone was ruthless as it ripped from the ground enormous banyan trees, bowled over towering coconut palms and lifted solid roofing from houses. Endless rain flooded homes and entire villages. 

Despite all of the preparation for the cyclone, nothing prepares you for the shock of the aftermath. By morning, fallen tree trunks had blocked every road, rolled shipping containers and beached yachts littered every part of Port Vila. Bridges between villages were totally washed away, with no way of crossing the overflowing rivers. While telephone communication in Port Vila was re-established by the afternoon, the rest of Vanuatu was silent for days to come. 

Though it is considered a developing country, the people of Vanuatu are extremely fortunate for the rich vegetation that envelops the archipelago, allowing them to live off the land sustainably. Seeing the almost total destruction of banana, coconut and cocoa plantations was the most confronting sight of all. 

Desperation was soon followed by disorder. Shops and resorts were looted, leading to a 6pm curfew. ATMs ran out of money and fuel became scarce. However, the response of the people who had experienced the wrath of Pam – villagers, expatriates, tourists – was united and overwhelmingly positive. And with a relatively low death toll of 11 people, hopes were high for a full recovery. 

Within hours, local people immediately began replanting their crops and rebuilding their homes. Locals on the island of Efate who own chainsaws took to the single road that connects villages with Port Vila and started to cut back the fallen tree trunks that had blocked the way.

Foreign aid has been pouring in from all over the world to support Vanuatu's recovery, including from Australia, France, the US and the EU. Australia has donated over $10 million in relief funding as well as $5 million to support locally-based NGOs. Over 2000 Australian military and aid personnel have also been deployed to support the effort. 

Locals, expatriates and tourists were lining up to volunteer with major NGOs that were preparing water, food and medical supplies to be delivered to those worst affected. Vanuatu's National Disaster Management Organisation coordinated the aid effort to ensure that those most in need would not miss out. 

At Port Vila Central Hospital, dozens of Australian and international volunteers have donated blood and helped local staff to restore the old wards and attend to the overwhelming influx of people. 

Shops and restaurants in town began to re-open after just a couple of days.

But while Vanuatu 'island life' seems to be back on its way to normalcy, the country faces some serious issues as a result of Cyclone Pam. Those living in more remote villages and islands waited for over a week to receive fresh water, food, medical assistance and shelter from aid vessels. These people will be relying on aid for weeks and perhaps months until their crops grow back and their rain tanks refill. 

Without local fruit and vegetables, many villages have lost their permanent food sources and their primary source of income, and soon the cost of feeding a family will be unaffordable. Tourism, an industry that Vanuatu's economy relies heavily upon, has come to a halt.

Dozens of fishing boats across Vanuatu that once provided a key part of the island diet were washed away or damaged beyond repair. Some living on more remote islands such as Tongariki and Boninga no longer have any fishing boats at all, and will have to rely on alternative sources of food until they source other boats. 

While the initial response from Australia and the international community has been encouraging, the road to a full recovery for Vanuatu will be a long one, requiring a sustained joint effort and the political will of the Vanuatu and supporting governments to re-build this beautiful country. 

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