While the world’s attention has been focused on the Haiti earthquake, a severe tropical cyclone battered the Pacific island of Aitutaki, an atoll in the Southern Cook Islands.
In a period of two weeks, the 15 atolls which make up the Cook Islands have been hit by three tropical cyclones. The strongest of the three, Tropical Cyclone Pat, made landfall on Aitutaki on 11 February at 03:00 in the morning, bringing destructive winds gusting up to 185kph to the island. Nearby Rarotonga and Palmerston also experienced gale force winds and rain.
Pat was the most powerful cyclone to hit Aitutaki in living history, with winds battering the island for up to six hours. Trees, power poles and crops were ripped from the ground as the storm passed over the island. An initial assessment revealed that 82 per cent of housing on the island has been damaged, and many have lost their roofs. The Government of the Cook Islands has declared Aitutaki a disaster zone.
The Cook Islands Red Cross Society (CIRS) has been playing a critical role in meeting the humanitarian needs of many of those affected by this emergency. They are coordinating closely with the authorities and are deploying joint assessment teams, sharing information and are coordinating response activities at the national level.
Because of the widespread damage to homes, many people are temporarily living with relatives or in evacuation centres and community buildings. The most pressing needs include: shelter, water, essential household items, and materials for cleaning and setting up family shelters.
In preparation for the cyclones, the CIRS had prepositioning additional relief supplies with their branches in the Southern Cook Islands. In parallel Red Cross volunteers assisted elderly residents with preparations and relocated them to inland shelters if necessary. Drawing on its auxiliary status to the government, the CIRS also arranged with customs authorities to let relief items into the country without incurring duty.
“We work as an important part of a coordinated disaster response network,” says Niki Rattle, Secretary General of Cook Islands Red Cross. “We are based in communities throughout the islands and our volunteers work with the authorities and other partners on both preparedness and response to disasters. This collaboration is an essential component of our ability to serve those who need our help.”
Collaboration in relief
The Cook Island Red Cross Society has conducted an initial damage and needs assessment and has already started to distribute relief items to the most vulnerable families affected by Tropical Cyclone Pat.
The International Federation of Red Cross Red Crescent has allocated 150,000 Swiss francs (approximately 140,000 US dollars; 100,000 euros) from its Disaster Relief Emergency Fund to meet the most urgent needs.
The Australian Red Cross sent a disaster management and water and sanitation specialist to assist the Cook Island Red Cross Society. In addition, both the Australian and the New Zealand Red Cross have sent shelter, first aid and hygiene kits, tarpaulins, water containers, mosquito nets and a water unit that will help to produce clean drinking water. Some of the funding will be used to deliver basic health and hygiene messages; and to provide families with psychosocial support. In total, the operation will assist close to 1,500 people in Aitutaki.
At the same time, additional stocks are being prepositioned in the Northern Cook Islands in order to be prepared for future disasters. While Cyclone Pat has dissipated, the Asia Pacific Centre for Emergency and Disaster Information warns that conditions in the Northern Cook Islands remain rife for more tropical storm.