The challenges of delivering relief to battered Pacific islands two weeks after Cyclone Pam

Published: 27 March 2015 15:13 CET

By Madeline Wilson and Patrick Fuller

Two weeks have passed since Cyclone Pam and two other tropical storms struck the Pacific, bringing destructive winds, heavy rains and tidal surges which caused widespread devastation affecting well over 100,000 people in Vanuatu and four other Pacific nations – Tuvalu, Kiribati, Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea.  In response, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies launched an appeal to help 81,000 people across the region.

When Cyclone Pam struck Vanuatu, the lives of Jacqueline De Gaillande, CEO of Vanuatu Red Cross, and her team of staff and volunteers were turned upside down. Since 13 March they have been working day and night to mobilize a steady stream of relief supplies destined for some of the affected islands. With more than 75,000 people in need of emergency shelter, the Red Cross is at the forefront of the response.   Over 70 volunteers are mobilised daily to help alongside a team of 20 international Red Cross staff.

“In the wake of the cyclone communities immediately rallied together to clean up and begin rebuilding,” says Jacqueline. “We are supporting some of the worst hit communities providing urgently needed shelter materials, essential household items and clean drinking water.”

So far, the Red Cross response has reached almost 10,000 people across 13 islands. Relief is being flown in from Australia and New Zealand and from the IFRC’s logistics hub in Malaysia. The logistics of delivering aid to a population spread across 22 islands is proving to be incredibly challenging.

“An operation like this means we need to hire boats, charter planes and use helicopters to ship supplies to far-flung locations,” explains Jaqueline, “we’ve just had a team return from a three day boat trip taking relief supplies to six islands in the Shepherd Islands group. They encountered rough seas and inaccessible roads and had very limited communication with the outside world.”

The remote nature of many islands in the countries affected by cyclone Pam makes the task of conducting needs assessments and delivering relief both costly and difficult. In countries such as Kiribati and Tuvalu prolonged sea swells and storm surges inundated homes, damaged crops and caused extensive flooding in many of the smaller islands, some of which can only be reached once a week by commercial flights.

Travelling by sea is the alternative. This week a team from Kiribati Red Cross travelled to the low-lying island of Tamana which was badly inundated by king tides coupled with the sea-swells and high winds brought by cyclone Pam. Tamana is located around 600 kilometres south of the capital of Tarawa and the boat carrying the Red Cross volunteers and relief items took almost three days to reach the island.  

The Red Cross has also been distributing relief across a number of the outer islands of Tuvalu, including Vaitupu,  Nukufetau and Nui, which has a land mass of 3.37 kilometres and a population of just over 500. 

“Regardless of their size and population, people on these islands have been hit hard,” explains Aurelia Balpe, head of the IFRC’s regional office for the Pacific in Suva. “They are isolated and don’t have easy access to goods and services. Our focus is on reaching places where the Red Cross has community networks but where no other organisations are able to go”.

Relief teams in the Solomon Islands are still in the field conducting assessments in both Malaita and Temotu provinces where strong winds, heavy rainfall, and storm surges have affected more than 30,000 people causing damage to fruit trees, food gardens, agricultural crops and homes.  

In Papua New Guinea, relief supplies have been released from Port Moresby and Lae and flown in to West New Britain and Madang, two provinces that experienced flooding and landslides due to the combined impacts of cyclone Pam and cyclone Nathan.