Losing everything - whole communities on the brink
Imagine losing everything. Not just your house, but your school, your garden - right down to the few items of clothing you own. Imagine that all communication towers were down - preventing you knowing whether your family on nearby islands were okay. This is the reality facing many families in the aftermath of Cyclone Pam. Surrounded by devastation, we spoke to the families who had survived the worst but were now desperate to rebuild their lives.
“This is where our classroom was,” said Susie and Lini, both 15 and sinking in the softness of the muddy grass surrounding an evacuation centre. They look across at the cement field where their school used to stand.
There is no classroom anymore, or school for that matter. After Cyclone Pam all that remains is a pile of rubble and a solitary fax machine, still intact. This doesn’t look like a classroom - it looks like a rubbish tip.
“When the cyclone came I was scared. We could hear the wind. It was blowing really hard and the rain came into the building. There was water everywhere. My house fell down, it doesn’t have a roof on it anymore, or any walls,” Susie says.
Lini and her family also lost their home, but Lini is also distressed about her school. “The books were damaged by water, and there are no buildings here anymore. Everything's broken. I don’t know when I’ll go back to school,” she said.
In the low-lying village nearby, it was a school building that saved the life of Sonja and her one-year-old daughter Justine as it protected them from the full force of Cyclone Pam.
“At about five o’clock on Friday evening the wind started to get very strong. I knew my house would not keep us safe so I ran with Justine to the kindergarten. We stayed there for two hours until the roof ripped off. Then we ran to the primary school. I ran for my life,” says Sonja.
The primary school is a two room cement structure, which thankfully withstood the storm. Sonja and Justine are still living in it with several other families. It is cramped but their homes are no longer habitable - they are awash with mud and roofs are missing.
Remarkably, Justine seemed unfazed by the experience. “She didn’t cry. Not even once. She slept through most of the storm,” says Sonja with a laugh.
Just 20 minutes’ drive from Justine and Sonja is another village where father of six, Dick, lives.
“In my village we lost everything,” he says. “We tried to protect our houses, but the strength of the wind was stronger than anything I’ve ever felt.”
As the storm hit, Dick moved his family to the nearest evacuation centre, where they sheltered with other people from their local community.
When he and his family returned to their home on Sunday morning, they were greeted with sheer devastation. They didn’t recognise their village, let alone their home.
“Only the church and three houses are safe, most of our houses were completely destroyed. Everything in the garden has been destroyed - fruit, vegetables, trees - there’s nothing left.” The village is now a dangerous obstacle course of fallen branches, twisted corrugated iron, and thatched roofs. Clothes are strewn on the muddy ground, toys have drowned in muddy water, and cups and plates lie broken in the wake of such a catastrophic storm.
“We lost everything, but we still have each other. I have my family,” Dick says with a smile.
On Vanuatu’s Tanna Island, the area worst hit by Cyclone Pam, Suzanne was looking forward to starting a family of her own. Just over six months pregnant, Suzanne spent seven terrifying hours running from shelter to shelter in the midst of the storm.
One by one, each shelter was destroyed. Suzanne started having contractions three days after the storm destroyed her home. There’s little doubt that these stressful circumstances have led to her early labour.
Suzanne is now being monitored at the hospital, but with no water or electricity, there is little the handful of staff can do.
The hospital is a sad sight. Suzanne’s bed is the only one with a mattress. Other women are resting on the wire-woven bed bases. Water, glass and other debris litter the floor. Water tanks have been uprooted and there is no power. Crucially, the adjoining pharmacy’s medical supplies were all ruined.
In its current state, the few staff that are there are only able to help people with the most urgent needs. For now, at least Suzanne has a roof over her head and a mattress to sleep on whilst she waits for the early delivery of her child.
Cyclone Pam has meant that children like Lini and Susie no longer have a home to go to, and while they are happy spending time with their younger brothers and sisters, they are desperate to get back to learning. Whilst the road to recovery will be a long one, and life for families like Dick's has changed significantly, World Vision is working with the government of Vanuatu and distributing water purification tablets, cooking essentials, baby supplies as well as materials to help the community rebuild their homes. In small villages, ongoing assistance will be needed to restore the crops and food sources that were entirely wiped out by the storm.
You can help deliver much needed supplies to those in need by giving to our Vanuatu Cyclone Appeal