Emergencies

  • When an emergency hits, Oxfam is there. We work with local partners on the ground so we can save lives during times of crisis and reduce future risks. We help people caught up in natural disasters and conflicts by providing clean water, food, sanitation and protection. At any given time, we’re responding to over 30 emergency situations, giving life-saving support to those most in need.

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.

Cyclone Pam leaves ‘unprecedented disaster' in Vanuatu

 

Stories of devastation emerge from Oxfam staffers.

Cyclone Pam, possibly one of the worst ever seen in the Pacific region, has now passed over the island nation of Vanuatu, and reports are emerging of the devastation left in its wake as Oxfam prepares to launch an emergency response.

 
Packing winds of up to 160 miles per hour, the storm slammed directly into Port Vila, Vanuatu’s capital on the island of Efate, where about 65,000 people live. Oxfam staffers there are reporting the complete destruction of homes: Winds have uprooted trees three stories tall, and in some of the smaller communities, barely any houses are left standing.
 
Power and water have been knocked out and people are still not able to move around freely.
 
“The scale of this disaster is unprecedented in this country and the proud people of Vanuatu are going to need a lot of help to rebuild their homes and their lives,” said Colin Collett van Rooyen, Oxfam’s Vanuatu country director. He said residents have told him that they have never seen a cyclone of this intensity and were scared about the devastation that will likely unfold as emergency teams make their way into hard-to-reach areas.

Slightly smaller than Northern Ireland, Vanuatu is a Y-shaped chain of four main islands and 80 smaller ones made up mostly of mountains with narrow coastal plains. Though many of the islands are uninhabited, the total population of the country is estimated to be close to 267,000 - that's around twice the population of Cork city.

Port Vila, the capital, has been named in the Natural Hazards Risk Atlas as the city most exposed to natural disasters in the world because of the risks it faces from earthquakes, tsunamis, flooding, and cyclones like Pam.

 

Wake-up call for disaster risk reduction

For the president of Vanuatu, the terrible reality of those risks reportedly brought him close to tears as he delivered his opening statement Saturday at the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai, Japan. The event is aimed at tackling the devastating impacts of disasters.
 
“I speak to you today with a heart that is so heavy,” said the president, Baldwin Lonsdale. “I stand to ask you to give a lending hand to responding to this calamity that has struck us.”
 
Ben Murphy, the humanitarian advocacy lead for Oxfam Australia who is attending the conference, said Lonsdale’s words are a wake-up call for the international community which is not doing enough to help reduce the risk of disasters like this and the impact they have on the world’s most vulnerable people.
 
“With Cyclone Pam and Typhoon Haiyan scale events likely to increase in severity, including due to the effects of climate change, current disaster risk reduction, preparedness, and response capacities from the local to the national and international levels will increasingly be pushed to the breaking point in the future,” said Murphy. “That’s why delegations meeting in Sendai need to have President Lonsdale’s words ringing in their ears as they negotiate new international framework on disaster risk reduction.”
 

Oxfam in Vanuatu

 
Oxfam has been working on disaster preparedness at both the local and national level in Vanuatu for the past four years. We have been funding communities to build cyclone-proof classrooms and coordinating the Vanuatu humanitarian team while working closely with governments and donor agencies to strengthen disaster preparedness across the country.
 
Following disasters like Cyclone Pam, Oxfam’s first step is to assess where the greatest needs are and then make determinations about shelter, clean water, sanitation, and food supplies.
 
The Vanuatu Humanitarian Team, coordinated by Oxfam, is now in action. As we learn more, we will continue to provide updates on the situation.

 

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