Eyewitness – Cyclone Pam

Eyewitness – Cyclone Pam

Photo: Isso Nihmei/350.org

We have launched an emergency appeal to help people in the island nation of Vanuatu where Cyclone Pam have wreaked devastation. This is likely to be one of the worst disasters ever seen in the Pacific. The scale of humanitarian need will be enormous and the people of Vanuatu are going to need a lot of help to rebuild their homes and their lives. 

Clean water, sanitation and hygiene supplies are a major issue for those left homeless and also those in evacuation centres, where there simply are not enough toilets or clean water for the amount of people in those facilities.

 

Here is a personal account of what it is like to experience the destructive forces of a Category 5 Cyclone from Colin Collett van Rooyen, Country Director, Oxfam in Vanuatu.

It was a dark and stormy night…no, seriously, it really was! Okay, so it never had a chance of being the perfect night in Vanuatu did it? We knew that Severe Tropical Cyclone Pam (we just call her Pam for short) was on her way. We knew (almost) exactly where she was and what her most likely next move would be and we knew that she would only reveal to us her secrets as she arrived over us.

Radios on, candles at the ready, water set out, lock down level red announced and cyclone tracking maps and pens on the table. Nothing unusual for cyclone season in Vanuatu really. This is a country so prone to cyclones that we have tracking maps in the early pages of the telephone directories. What was unusual was not knowing how strong Pam was going to be; how dark and stormy it would all get given that she was a category five cyclone. A rare beast.

Regular radio announcements in calm tones; traditional Vanuatu string band music in-between statements of how harsh things may be when she gets to us. All a bit surreal really. The cyclone shutters boarding up our windows and doors start to shudder, at first gently and irregularly and then faster and constant. Pam is now moving in, getting closer to us at a rate of 10, 15, 20 kilometers per hour. Her eye moves at an astounding speed, creating wind forces of unimaginable speeds.

Can you imagine ‘over 200km an hour’? I couldn’t at the time. But I could hear it. I now know the sound of 200km per hour or more, and I don’t think I would willingly subject myself to it again. Pam arrived announced by the drum roll of our shutters. Then she roared, she squealed, she hissed. She spat and cursed in deep bass tones, and at the same time she whistled and screeched in ways that messed with our senses. What was that we just heard?

Someone outside screaming? The high-pitched string band notes we had heard earlier on the radio? No, the radio was off and people had taken shelter. It was Pam in her many voices. She spoke a language of essential fear at its most primitive and we understood it instantly.

I could also ‘see’ what more than 200km per hour looked like. It was dark, the lights went out, it had that wobbly candle lit orange to it (not the romantic one you may be used to). It had pictures in my head of houses falling apart, metal sheets ripping of roofs, yachts in the bay turned upside down, trees tearing themselves into shreds, people cowering in dark corners and animals confused and wild. I could see 200km per hour in our eyes where we reflected the fear we were feeling so transparently despite our attempts to do the “I’m cool, you cool” act.

And of course we could feel it too. Pam’s special brand of 200km per hour or more shook us to the core. Our sturdy home rattled a bit at first and then at Pam’s most powerful moments she shook it. Just to remind us that she was in charge. Just to add to that already sharp edge that had moved us to huddle on the floor closest to the strongest walls and as far as possible from windows and doors that felt like they may not hold.

We could feel it too in another way. In wondering about family far away, in thinking about friends close by and those less fortunate to have a sturdy home, and in trying to reconcile this ugly yet astounding moment with the beautiful and gentle Vanuatu we love so much. And then after dragging us around with such aggression she decided to move on, to try her power games on anther small island of Vanuatu, and then another and another.

And at the end of this ‘dark and stormy night’ we were left wide awake, unable to sleep a wink in case she came back, wondering if what we saw in our mind’s eye, what we felt and heard, would be real when we eventually cracked open the doors after the all clear in the morning.

And it was.

Colin Collett van Rooyen, Country Director, Oxfam in Vanuatu. Follow Colin on Twitter here.

You can help support Oxfam’s Cyclone Pam response by donating here.