[Anglican Alliance] In the four months since Tropical Cyclone Pam left a trail of destruction across the Vanuatu archipelago, the Anglican Church of Melanesia (ACoM) has been bringing emergency assistance to remote island communities – and encountering stories of resilience and rebuilding in the process.
Some 188,000 people, about 50% of the country’s population, were affected when the category 5 cyclone struck Vanuatu on Friday, 13 March 2015, according to assessments by the Vanuatu National Disaster Management Office, the UN and NGOs.
Up to 15,000 homes were destroyed across the 22 islands in the storm’s path, leaving 75,000 people in need of emergency shelter. Key infrastructure such as water tanks, schools and health facilities was decimated, churches were flattened and the basis of livelihoods was destroyed. In both the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu there was an urgent need for food and fresh water.
Trevor Mantaktakk, an Anglican Alliance Agents of Change student, says the destruction was immediately visible in the central and southern parts of Vanuatu where Cyclone Pam hit the hardest: "You can see from the distance as clear as [can be] because there [is] no more green colour. Every [leaf] from trees has been blown away and all you can see is a brown environment."
With the support of Anglican agencies, ACoM has been working with the Governments of the Solomon Islands and the Republic of Vanuatu to deliver relief and recovery supplies to all members of affected communities, and is providing pastoral support as well.
Rebuilding as a community
On 13 April the Anglican flagship MV Southern Cross set sail for Temotu Province in the Solomon Islands with four tons of rice, hundreds of boxes of tinned fish and other food supplies, tents, nails and other building materials on board.
Crew and distribution teams encountered communities who were getting on with the business of rebuilding their lives – as a community.
"[Such] is the strong community bonding, everybody looks after everybody, that the business of rebuilding, looking for food become communal activities," reports Tagolyn Kabekabe, Anglican Alliance Facilitator for the Pacific.
This communal self-reliance extends to disaster preparedness as well, Tagolyn notes.
On Tikopia Island, at the extreme southern, cyclone-prone edge of the Solomon Islands, North East of Vanuatu, the traditional houses are built on sand out of plant leaves and bush trees and are almost always destroyed when there is a cyclone.
However, the community knows to seek shelter in nearby rocky caves and store food and planting materials there that allow them to survive while waiting for outside assistance.
Trevor notes that the day after Cyclone Pam the world was expecting reports of hundreds and thousands of deaths but only eleven people are thought to have lost their lives. This could be attributed to the work the government and the Church have done to help communities plan how to react in the event of a cyclone, says his Agents of Change course facilitator Elizabeth Perry.
Preparing to respond when disaster strikes
The MV Southern Cross set sail once again in mid-May, this time to islands in Vanuatu, with Bishop James Ligo, of Vanuatu diocese, on board to provide pastoral support in person.
Rough seas posed a challenge for delivery of relief and recovery supplies to villages on Mere Lava Island in Torba Province. So the leaders of the five villages shared the task of organizing community members to help unload off the Southern Cross, fairly divide up the bags of rice, vegetable seed and planting materials - and then transport everything back home on foot due to the lack of roads on the island.
Torba Province ACoM Relief Distributor Abraham Eldads notes with admiration the villagers’ sense of community support and their willingness to collaborate with local authorities and representatives of organisations doing assessments on the island. Because of the rugged terrain and lack of vehicular access, "community participation and support are of utmost importance," he says.
This participation and support mean that the community was well-poised to react following the cyclone, he observes. A local disaster committee was convened soon after the storm passed and took steps to ensure people’s safety and encourage the prompt replanting of subsistence gardens.
On Merig Island, also in Torba Province, the team found a similar situation. The community already had begun repairing the damage done by the cyclone by planting new gardens, building a new school classroom and starting up production of copra, the dried kernel of the coconut that is used to extract coconut oil. They also had transported those needing medical attention to neighbouring Gaua Island and had cleaned up and done necessary repairs to their homes.
Emergency assistance to all
Unloading sacks of rice from the MV Southern Cross for transport to island communities.
Photo Credit: Anglican Church of Melanesia-Vanuatu
Relief supplies, including a new water tank for a school, were delivered to communities on Pentecost Island in Penama Province and Isuk in Malampa Province, one of the newest areas of the Anglican Church. Here the relief team coordinated and carried out the distribution together with church and community leaders, who expressed their gratitude to ACoM and to overseas partners for supporting them in their time of need.
Over 225 bags of rice went to three institutions and communities in five districts on Ambae Island in Penama Province, the first assistance they had received since the storm. The threat of food insecurity is being countered with the distribution of vegetable seeds and other material for planting, together with garden tools. The community and church leaders and institution heads all conveyed sincere thanks for ACoM having "tremendously assisted" them in Cyclone Pam’s aftermath.
ACoM also has supported Losalava Junior Secondary School and the Melanesian Brothers community on Gaua Island and donated cash and rice to governmental relief efforts in Sanma Province. Sanma Provincial Disaster Committee Chairman Zachariah Daniel thanked the church for its prayers and said his committee received with "joyful hearts" the donations that would help to "physically rebuild the strength of affected communities".
"In all affected areas located in Anglican parishes, the relief team saw priests and deacons working tirelessly alongside the people, sharing what limited resources they had," Tagolyn says.
Rebuilding and building resilience
Now AcoM is shifting its focus to next steps and longer-term support.
Some areas are in need of further recovery assistance in the form of food rations to bridge the gap until newly planted crops can be harvested from salt-resistant, quick-growing planting materials. Others need more basic supplies such as water containers, soap, matches, cement to repair and build water tanks, or iron sheeting to replace roofing blown off by the storm.
Other needs are longer-term: Building new homes with stronger, more wind-resistant materials and located on higher ground; erecting more evacuation shelters; exploring the possibility of relocating entirely to bigger and higher islands; establishing more reliable telecommunications systems to maintain contact with people outside the island during emergencies; and improving means of travel to neighbouring islands for basic household supplies following a storm.
During one distribution the relief team noted the particular vulnerability of people with disabilities and recommended assisting the community to find ways to support these families in times of crisis.
And some communities are in need of financial assistance to rebuild.
ACoM is working together with Anglican partners to determine how best to continue supporting communities rebuilding after Cyclone Pam and building resilience to future storms.
"We lost buildings, we lost gardens, we lost properties but the one thing we never lose is the smile of Vanuatu that remains the same, despite cyclone pain," says Trevor.
Partner agencies Anglican Board of Missions – Australia, Anglican Missions Board – New Zealand, Anglican Overseas Aid, Episcopal Relief and Development and Melanesian Mission are supporting Vanuatu’s rebuilding and resilience building through appeals. More information and prayer resources are available on the Anglican Alliance website.