Surviving Cyclone Pam

Surviving Cyclone Pam

Supercyclone Pam, bringing winds gusting to more than 300 Kph, swept nearly two dozen of Vanuatu’s central and southern islands bare. The destruction is difficult to conceive of, harder still to express. Let one tiny example stand for all: A brand new trade school, constructed to the state of the art, razed after only ten days in operation. Behind it lie the shattered remnants of a giant banyan tree. These trees are integral to Tannese custom; because of their monumental size and durability. Indeed, each of the storied twelve nakamals (sacred gathering places) of Tanna is located under a banyan tree.

Both the ancient and the modern were swept away with equal ease by Pam’s unprecedented power.

A broken guitar lies among the ruins of a newly built trade school, destroyed when cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu. The school had been open for a mere ten days.

A broken guitar lies among the ruins of a newly built trade school, destroyed when cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu. The school had been open for a mere ten days.

To everyone’s surprise, even amazement, only five of the island’s nearly thirty thousand inhabitants perished. The story is the same on all of the worst hit islands: On Efate, with the highest population, just a handful. Two more from tiny Emae, which took a direct hit from the eye of the storm. The list goes on. In all, only eleven people have been confirmed killed, and four of those had been in hospital in serious condition prior to the cyclone.

Nobody can say for certain just yet why the death toll has been so remarkably low. There are likely a number of contributing factors. The first is that the Ni Vanuatu people have had 3000 years to prepare. Historically, Vanuatu has received an average of 1.5 cyclones per year for as long as we’ve been keeping records. Local dwellings are designed with eaves nearly reaching the ground in order to prevent the roof from being blown away. The bamboo walls and natangura-thatched roof are flexible and sufficiently porous to withstand even the strongest winds. Some people hid in purpose-built traditional cyclone shelters. These are tiny, half-subterranean shelters dug into a hillside, walled with tightly woven bamboo. They are cramped, dirty and wet, but they go a long way to ensuring survival.

Had this been a ‘normal’ cyclone, it’s doubtful whether it would have made the news at all.

Traditional knowledge and experience joined with information technology in saving lives. Begun in 2008, the government of Vanuatu’s universal access policy has resulted in mobile phone services reaching more than 90% of the population. As the cyclone approached Vanuatu waters, the government chief information officer and the telecommunications regulator negotiated free broadcast SMS notifications that successfully warned virtually the entire population. On top of that, better communications allowed for the identification of evacuation centres throughout the country well before the storm made travel deadly.

In a tragic turn of events, not less than two of the fatalities on Tanna were the result of an evacuation centre losing its roof at the very moment a family was making the dash to safety. This is a reflection of the enormous strength of the wind, which reached a sustained speed of well over 200 Kph in this area.

Vanuatu was more than fortunate to have survived the initial shock of this terrible weather event. Arguably, it has done so more effectively than most other nations could.

The country’s resilience has also been remarkable. Power began coming back on in the capital within 36 hours. Considering that there were scarcely 200 contiguous metres of transmission cable intact after the storm, the local utility’s speed of recovery should provide an invaluable case study for first responders in other natural disasters.

Digicel Vanuatu CEO Simon Frasier helps load a microwave antenna onto a chopper flowin in from Fiji to assist with the recovery from cyclone Pam, which damaged communications towers the length of Vanuatu.

Digicel Vanuatu CEO Simon Frasier helps load a microwave antenna onto a chopper flowin in from Fiji to assist with the recovery from cyclone Pam, which damaged communications towers the length of Vanuatu.

Both Digicel and Telecom Vanuatu Ltd, Vanuatu’s two national telecommunications providers, were offering limited mobile and 3G services within four hours of the eye passing the island of Efate. Telsat Pacific, a Port Vila-based ISP, lost its main communications tower to the storm. The wind tore a 1,500 kilogram anchor block out of the ground and flung it into a building 5 metres away. Three days after the storm, a replacement tower had been jury-rigged from salvaged parts and core services were back. This has allowed many aid organisations to sustain their communications at a key moment in time.

Digicel, which suffered the loss of four inter-island communications towers, restored 70% of its national network within five days of the storm, and 100% within ten days. I experienced directly the all-hands-on-deck approach the company took when Digicel Vanuatu’s CEO, Simon Frasier, personally escorted me and a colleague onto the Port Vila airport tarmac, and then grabbed one side of a Tanna-bound microwave antenna and helped load it onto a chopper. You can’t buy this kind of commitment.

To complement this, the international NGOs, the UN agencies, military from the UK, Australia, France and New Zealand, and hundreds of well-meaning volunteers have all played a critical supporting role in ensuring the survival of over 130,000 vulnerable people.

But—and I cannot emphasise this enough—none of this will have been sufficient if we don’t get the next phase right.

The logistical challenge is greater than anything this nation has faced since World War II.

Nearly two dozen islands, once among the lushest and most abundant in the world, have been denuded, leaving about half the nation’s population with little or no food and clean water, and at risk of starvation unless supplies reach them now—and continue to reach them consistently for the next three months at a minimum. Countless schools will have to be rebuilt. Medical services will be required. The logistical challenge is greater than anything this nation has faced since World War II.

The World Food Program and UNICEF are assisting with the flow of foodstuffs and other essentials into the country, and countless NGOs and aid organisations are lending a hand in this monumental undertaking, but ultimately, the success of this endeavour rests with a small core of individuals in Vanuatu’s (rather inaptly named) National Disaster Committee.

One Vanuatu official was heard commenting that the National Disaster Management Office had once been considered the orphan child within the government departments. Its staff of four performed a mostly symbolic role. That all changed a couple of years ago, when the government realigned itself, integrating climate change preparedness in its national strategy. With a ministerial portfolio assigned to the task, it finally became possible to gain some traction in cabinet. Today, the director of the climate change department is at the head of the NDC, and his minister is second only to the PM in the national disaster management hierarchy.

Vanuatu’s ability to mobilise quickly and to assess and adjust more or less on the fly has ensured that, so far, we have not become what government officials characterise as ‘another Haiti’, in which agencies and NGOs simply materialised in the sky above the airport, landed and began disbursing goods and services without regard to what was already there or even, in some case, with what was actually needed.

The mantra here in Vanuatu is ‘no cowboys’. We all work together, or we don’t work at all.

Laundry dries on the wreckage of a house in Lamkail village, Tanna.

Laundry dries on the wreckage of a house in Lamkail village, Tanna.

Virtually all of the supporting governments, agencies, NGOs and well-wishers have accepted the wisdom of this course of action. They have accepted as well the key instruction that aid is to be provided fairly, equitably and universally. ‘We understand that every NGO needs to plant their flag,’ said Benjamin Shing, who is responsible for disaster response operations, ‘but people need to realise that any mistakes we make today will remain with us for a generation.’ The potential for resentment and even civil strife resulting from inequities in access to aid is something many, if not most, aid organisations often overlook in their rush to provide services.

Overall, the aid operation has begun to coalesce. Most organisations have been successful in fighting their natural tendency to operate independently, and the aid has—so far—begun flowing smoothly, and in sufficient quantity to ensure the survival of the nation’s most affected population.

We have successfully moved from the sprint phase, an all-out rush to assess the damage and treat the wounded, to the marathon phase, in which we spend months backstopping the food, water and shelter needs of half a nation. The stakes today are just as high as they were the day after Pam struck the country down. We are in a race against time.

This article was written by
Dan McGarry

Dan McGarry is chief technologist at the Pacific Insititute of Public Policy. He has worked in the Pacific for over a decade now, assisting in numerous capacities in the development of ICTs in Vanuatu and the Pacific. He has extensive experience in technology policy formulation and implementation as well as in traditional and new media. He still writes software.

There are 9 comments for this article
  1. Henk van den Ende at 5:49 pm

    Dan, I am currently involved as a manager in a disaster management otganisation in Queensland Australia. It is wonderful to see that outside agencies have identified a single coordination/management agency to ensure all happens as it should. I have seen it too many times where a larger agency who beleives they should be I charge actually hinder the response purely as they do not have the wider picture, understanding of the other agencies complexities and the local knowledge. I hope that our organisation and others around the world take note of the efficient and planned response to this large and dynamic disaster.
    Thank you to all the planners and organisors of this response to bring all together as a single team with the sole purpose of the welfare of the people of Vanuatu.
    Well done and congratulations to all.

  2. christine orchard at 8:54 am

    Team work, wonderful article. So pleased that this is the path all the agencies are taking. I love Vanuatu people

  3. Olivia at 7:46 pm

    Thank you for laying this all out so clearly and thoughtfully. And, importantly, within the particular cultural context of Vanuatu. May Vanuatu, her people, those whose intention is to be of help, and all those who love her, rise to the occasion.

  4. Davide De Beni at 7:23 am

    Dan, thanks for the keeping us updated and for your and PiPP formidable commitment in the aftermath of ciclone Pam.

  5. J Taylor at 5:11 am

    An interesting article with lots of very good points. I do however question the championing of mobile phone technology here. Certainly it was extremely useful in circulating important information before the cyclone, and has been after. But lets not also forget that when the cyclone hit it failed completely, resulting in widespread uncertainty and fear over several long days. I’m not a communications expert, but I do wonder what emergency alternatives had been or could have been put in place in case of this failure.

    • admin at 12:34 pm

      When a category 5 cyclone strikes, typically everything fails. The very definition of a cat5 is ‘local devastation’ in the area of highest winds. The standard to which most communications infrastructure is built is to withstand the winds at the core of a category 3 cyclone. The fact is that comms were up and running locally in Port Vila within 4 hours of the eye passing, and the national network was rebuilt within 10 days. That is an immense achievement. The network performed well above expectations.

      Realistically, you cannot expect much of anything to survive such a disaster. The fact that we were able to recover so quickly really is quite remarkable.

      • J Taylor at 5:00 pm

        Thanks for your reply. I do not doubt this. I do however suspect that the faith, energy and investment put into mobile phone techs in recent years detracted somewhat from the maintenance and/or pursuance of other alternatives, such as radio, that could have been more robust. Easy to say in hindsight, to be sure, but I hope that these will be explored for the future.

        • admin at 5:45 pm

          Having had to repair the HF radio for a provincial HQ following a category 2 cyclone, the term ‘robust’ doesn’t spring to my mind in relation to any form of radio communications. :-)

          Jokes aside, it is always worth considering what might have worked better. And it is a fact that our medium wave transmitter went off the air at a crucial time due to a lack of fault-tolerance in the implementation. But broadcast communications serve a distinctly different purpose to mobile voice and data, for example. I remain confident in my assertion that we did quite well under extreme circumstances.

          It is extremely important to note that treating Pam as a generic event (i.e. the kind of cyclone that rolls through this area on a regular basis) denies us the perspective needed to understand the scope and scale of the event. Think what you will about future trends, but the force of this cyclone was, I believe, unprecedented in this part of the world. In short, it’s not something that even disaster management plans plan for.

          • J Taylor at 6:04 pm

            Thanks again for taking the time to reply so thoroughly. Its is a complicated discussion, it seems! All the best, and I look forward to reading and learning more on this and other issues on this site.