Tropical Cyclone Pam: One year on

12 March, 2016
12 months on from Tropical Cyclone Pam, the country is still rebuilding. Credit: UNICEF/Dan McGarry
12 months on from Tropical Cyclone Pam, the country is still rebuilding. Credit: UNICEF/Dan McGarry
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A year after Tropical Cyclone Pam cut a path of destruction across Vanuatu, Tuvalu, the Solomon Islands and Kiribati, the Pacific is again grappling with the devastating aftermath of a Category 5 cyclone – the worst ever to hit the South Pacific. After impacting on the islands of central Tonga, Tropical Cyclone Winston unleashed its El Niño-fueled fury on Fiji on 20-21 February, killing more than 40 people and leaving 40 per cent of the population in humanitarian need.

Like the people of Vanuatu a year ago, Fijians are again proving the Pacific’s resilience to the natural disasters which affect the region with increasing unpredictability.

Village headman Simione Koroicakau looks out with tears in his eyes at all that is left of his once- beautiful coastal community of Verevere on the north east coast of Fiji’s main island, Viti Levu.

“After the cyclone, my village has gone down to almost ground zero. Living is very difficult at the moment. Everything is gone. Now the people are crying for their houses so they can get back to normal life. It’s very difficult for us to start but we are confident to carry on,” Mr Koroicakau said.

Every building in this village was damaged and the vast majority destroyed as TC Winston battered the coast. More than a hundred people are currently living in tents and a small local hall but it’s a situation the village headman is determined will not continue.

“You can see now that we started building our houses. At the moment, the whole village still lives in the community hall. It’s not a very big hall. It’s overcrowded there and there’s a risk of disease too,” he said.

Neighbouring forestry plantations provide the perfect materials for a longer-term rebuilding effort but there remains a need for more tools and equipment.
“We need some chainsaws or a portable sawmill because we’ve got a mahogany forest here that’s all destroyed and we can use it up,” he said.

Shelter Assessments conducted within weeks of Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu revealed a similar capacity for self-recovery with almost three quarters of affected people reporting that they had carried out their own housing repairs.

“Pacific Islanders are extremely resilient and are keen to get on with the task of rebuilding their homes. Shelter supplies funded through the UN’s Central Emergency Relief Fund have arrived in Fiji and include tarpaulins, tools and fixings to support people to get back on their feet. An Emergency Cash Grant has also funded US$50,000 in equipment for clearing debris including chainsaws. Fijians face a long road to recovery and have our full support as they rebuild,” Humanitarian Coordinator, Osnat Lubrani said.

Impacts on agriculture were extreme in both cyclones with added food security risks associated with El Niño. “Between 70 and 80 per cent of coconut, coffee, leaf vegetables and taro crops were wiped out in the worst affected areas of Vanuatu. Stock piles of food were also destroyed leaving families with little to eat. This impact was compounded by the El Niño drought which followed, stopping replanted crops from growing and leaving thousands reliant on emergency food distributions and children at risk of malnutirition,” Humanitarian Coordinator, Osnat Lubrani said.

Such was the impact of these food shortages in Vanuatu that even the youngest minds are now conscious of the need to store emergency food supplies in case of future disasters.

“Me, my mum and my sister are going to plant our crops and after our crops are ready, we will harvest them before another cyclone comes. So if another cyclone strikes we will be lucky, because we will still have food to eat,” eight year old Joanna Kawenu said a year after the cyclone.

In Fiji, farmers have spent the past year grappling with the impacts of El Niño and authorities are working hard to prevent a repeat of the food insecurity seen in Vanuatu. Total damage to agriculture from Cyclone Winston is estimated at US $57 million with cash crops badly hit, limiting their availability and increasing prices at local markets. Food rations have been delivered to affected communities across the country to meet immediate humanitarian needs. To kick-start the longer-term agricultural recovery process, the Fiji Government has been distributing seeds and seedlings but some farmers are already taking steps to begin their own recovery.

Sesarina Lisi’s vegetable farm at Tova settlement, near Mataso in Ra Province, has been completely destroyed just as crops were about to be harvested. She and her husband have used their church connections to quickly source seeds so that replanting can begin.

“The cassava is just uprooted and the crop is just rotten now. We’ve got a little bit of taro and plantain which is all down. We paid two men to come and help so now they are re-planting stuff. It will be about eight months before we can start harvesting,” she said.

While Fijians are strong and resilient, there remains enormous humanitarian need. On 4 March, The Fijian Government and the United Nations jointly launched an emergency appeal to help fund projects to support the 350,000 people affected by Cyclone Winston. The international community is urged to give generously to this Appeal.

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