Santa Cruz Island, Temotu Province: Destruction caused by the earthquake in the Solomon Islands. Credit: WPSA Rapid Assessment Team/Steven Clegg
On 6 February 2013, an 8.0 magnitude earthquake set off a small but powerful tsunami that sent 1.5-metre waves roaring inland on Santa Cruz Island, a remote area in the Solomon Islands archipelago of the Pacific. Nearly 40 per cent of the houses on the island were either damaged or destroyed and an estimated 60 per cent of the population was affected. OCHA’s Rashmi Rita travelled from Fiji to the Solomon Islands to support the emergency response on one of the first flights that was able to land.
I arrived in Lata, the largest town on Santa Cruz, a small island with approximately 2,500 households and 12,000 people. It took nearly two hours by plane to reach Lata from the capital, Honiara. Some of my colleagues arrived in Lata after a three day voyage by cargo ship from Honiara.
On arrival, I was shocked and overwhelmed by the scale of the devastation. Several people died or were injured as they tried to escape the tsunami waves, or were hit by falling rocks from one of the many aftershocks. Even a week after the earthquake and tsunami, strong aftershocks were still frightening the islanders and many people had set up temporary camps on higher ground. They were scared to return home because of the threat of another tsunami. People had little access to clean drinking water and, as the area relies heavily on subsistence farming, their access to food suffered because their land was affected by the earthquake and subsequent aftershocks and landslides.
The weather forecast said a looming tropical depression threatened to bring heavy rain to the area, which made it even more important to ensure that people had enough water, food and shelter.
The Solomon Islands Red Cross Society and World Vision already had staff in the area, and the Solomon Islands National Disaster Management Office (NDMO) had set up a Provincial Emergency Operations Centre. They worked with humanitarian agencies to make sure that affected communities were receiving relief supplies, including tarpaulins, blankets, clothes, clean water and food. This was a difficult task, as communities are dispersed across the island and some could only be reached by boat. There were a limited number of cars, trucks and boats on the island, adding to the challenges.
I had previously visited the Solomon Islands twice to work with the NDMO to develop an effective system for coordinated needs assessments following a disaster. My colleagues and I had also worked to develop a network of humanitarian partners in the Solomon Islands and to strengthen their national system for disaster response coordination. This time, my role was to support the Assessment and Information Management Team as they compiled data from the various assessments, and to produce maps that would help humanitarian actors understand the scale of the disaster as well as where the greatest needs were.
As the response efforts continued, OCHA staff worked with the Solomon Islands Government and humanitarian agencies to develop a Humanitarian Action Plan that will ensure that further response efforts over the next four months are effective, predictable, accountable and inclusive.
The day before leaving Lata, I stood near a children’s playground and looked towards a hill where many families had set up camp. I spoke to some of the men who were busy building a house with local timber and roofing material from sago palm leaves, using some of the tools from the relief distribution.
“I usually do contract work for the Provincial Government, surveys and so on,” one man told me. “But now, I am too busy rebuilding our houses. It will take a couple of weeks to get them built. Until then we are staying in the camping area or with relatives.”
I reflected on how, despite the damage and destruction, people remained positive and eager to rebuild their lives.