Making a difference in Vanuatu six months on from Cyclone Pam

Published: 12 September 2015 3:47 CET

Navinesh Kumar, IFRC

On Friday 13 March, Tropical Cyclone Pam, a category 5 tropical storm tore across the south-west Pacific region.  Over 200,000 people across five Pacific Nations countries were affected. Vanuatu was the hardest hit but Tuvalu, Kiribati, Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea did not escape unscathed.

Six months later many communities in Vanuatu are still trying to recover from what is considered to be one of the most destructive disasters in the countries history.

Steven Takak (49) is collecting bits of timber and other debris from nearby bushes to use for rebuilding his family home. Steven lives with his wife and seven children in Tavie, a community of 24 households numbering 100 people in Malaba province on Paama Island. He believes that six months is not sufficient for him and his family to recover from the desperate state in which the cyclone left them and feels that it will take at least a year for life to return to normal.

“The cyclone started around one in the afternoon," he recalled. “It was very scary and it lasted until midnight. All I could hear was the roofs of our houses being ripped off and blown away. Trees were being uprooted and people were crying out for help.”

Before the cyclone made landfall, Steven heeded warnings and sought shelter with his family at his brothers’ house which was stronger than his own home. He was sure that his family would be safe there. It wasn’t until the following morning that Steven was able to go out to check on his own house. What remained was a pile of rubble. His home had been completely destroyed by the massive winds.

“I lost everything; my house together with all my belongings was gone. I just sat thinking how will I get everything back? There was no food. I had to go to the bush and look for some fruits to feed my family as all our crops were destroyed too.”

One week later help arrived from the Red Cross who came to the island with items including tarpaulins, family tents, cooking sets, water containers and solar lights. They also provided shelter repair tool kits to help families rebuild their homes.

“I knew little about the Red Cross.  I never knew that the organisation could be of such a huge assistance to my family and our community as a whole. They were the first ones to reach us,” Steven explained.

Vanuatu Red Cross Health Coordinator, Danny Manvoi, has been providing hygiene promotion training to remote island communities to ensure that families are all well-versed in safe hygiene practises. 

“We visited Paama Island a week after the cyclone struck to carry out assessments in communities on the extent and impact of the disaster. This gave us a thorough understanding of people’s  vulnerabilities and how we could intervene with training and education."

According to Manvoi, communities had little or no prior knowledge of basic hygiene practises. The Red Cross water and sanitation and hygiene promotion team (WASH) had to visit communities a number of times to ensure a smooth transfer of knowledge with maximum coverage. 

“We have trained and empowered the community who now have knowledge on best hygiene practises which help to reduce the spread of communicable diseases. We have also trained them on how to make soap and how to build water catchments,” added Danny.

The WASH team also provided training on building ‘Tipi Taps’ for hand-washing which are  comprised of a portable wooden structure with a bottle of water and soap hanging on it. A simple foot lever tips the bottle, releasing water for hand-washing.

Together with the hygiene promotion training, the Vanuatu Red Cross also carried out awareness programmes on how to rebuild their homes to make them stronger in the face of future disasters.

Malon Tony (55), said the hygiene promotion and shelter training was very educational to everyone.

“We are now more aware about the importance of good personal hygiene and some of the practises that we need to adopt to keep us free from diseases. Also we now have the knowledge on how to reconstruct our houses to make them safer,” said Tony.

Over a two year timeframe, the Red Cross aims to help close to 70,000 people through programmes that support their long term recovery and reduce the risks that they face from future disasters.