March 18, 2015
The following blog first appeared on Herald Sun
Loads of packages covered with “Australian aid” stickers sit in front of me as the C17 hurtles down the runway at Amberley Air Base, just outside Brisbane.
We are bound for Vanuatu, which has just been torn apart by Cyclone Pam, the strongest storm ever to hit the Pacific nation.
I’m among a group of about 40 aid workers and journalists on the flight. We’re joining others to provide immediate relief to the thousands of people — indeed, almost half the population — affected by the crisis.
Australia has committed a package of assistance to the relief effort including $5 million and medical experts and, together with the Federal Government, is playing a key role in the response.
We know the situation is bad but it is only once we are on the tarmac that the complete and utter devastation becomes clear — the airport has no power and uprooted trees with branches ripped off them litter the edge of the airfield.
Driving through Port Vila, Vanuatu’s capital, we are confronted with a scene of staggering devastation: collapsed roofs, fallen power poles, smashed billboards; concrete walls have come down and bricks are strewn along the roadside.
It seems nothing has been spared. Much of the city is without power and the water system has been badly damaged, increasing the risk of disease spreading. There are more than 25 evacuation centres scattered around the city and many, by necessity, are in schools, which will put pressure on the education system.
It’s clear immediately that the devastation of the storm will be felt for many months, probably years — long after the journalists have headed home. Yet amid the chaos, it’s extraordinary how the Vanuatu people are picking up the pieces of their lives and starting to go about their business.
Already some shops are reopening — although everything is being offered for quick sale because of the lack of refrigeration — and many of our Save the Children staff are back at work, with much to do. I wondered if I’d be so quick to get back to work if my home and much of what I owned had been destroyed by a storm.
Just days after the storm, there’s an urgent need for food, water, shelter and communications.
Large swathes of farmland were ripped up by Cyclone Pam and entire crops were lost, as well as the livelihoods that went with them.
In the outer islands, people have only a couple of days of food — and that’s if they’re lucky. Right now, getting food to people as quickly as possible is the absolute priority. Then in the months ahead, there’s a huge job to be done helping people buy and plant new crops and replacing damaged machinery.
Communications is another critical need. In Port Vila my phone signal flickered between “SOS” and a local carrier. As you head just outside the city the reception is even worse — beyond that it is nonexistent.
Aid agencies are yet to make contact with staff members in other parts of the country, meaning that the exact scale of damage and destruction still isn’t fully known.
Physical access is difficult. Roads are blocked by fallen trees, power poles and other debris. As more staff and machinery are flown and shipped in, that will improve, but for now we can only hope the storm was more forgiving in other parts of the country.
Before the storm, Save the Children worked with local communities to prepare for cyclones like this as well as preparing for flooding, earthquakes and landslides.
In Penama and Shefa provinces — where 90 per cent of homes were either badly damaged or destroyed by Pam — we provided education kits on disaster preparedness with session plans and activity guides to teach children how to keep themselves and their families safe.
We also identified community leaders to push the program through local schools, reaching more than 22,000 people.
There were evacuation drills, educational songs and lessons about keeping safe. Children were also encouraged to make sure their families were prepared, developing household plans and keeping important documents like birth certificates safe.
In the days leading up to Cyclone Pam, staff went door to door in many parts of the country ensuring disaster plans were being put in place and encouraging those in low-lying areas to evacuate.
We can only hope that when we finally make contact with those communities that are so far unreachable, the news will be better. Either way, the people of Vanuatu will need help for a long time.
The pallets of aid are an important part of the recovery process, but beyond that schools will need help to reopen and children, who are most vulnerable in disasters, will need special care and psychosocial support so they can recover and roads and infrastructure will need to be rebuilt.
There’s no easy recovery from a storm like Pam. Our Pacific neighbour needs our help and we must be there until the job is done.
Donate to Save the Children’s Cyclone Pam appeal here.