(Picture Above is Looking across Efate, Vanuatu before Cyclone Pam hit)
Please Note: This is a firsthand experience of Cyclone Pam slamming into Vanuatu from the perspective of a couple living on Efate, the third largest island of the chain. Cyclones, Hurricanes and Typhoons are all the same weather phenomenon, but which word is used is based upon where the event occurs – Cyclones in the South Pacific and Indian Ocean, Hurricane in the North Atlantic and Pacific, and Typhoon in the Northwest Pacific.
Preparing for Cyclone Pam
We had plenty of warning from Internet based forecast services of a seriously big tropical storm heading for us. The Vanuatu Meteorological Service (VMS) refused to acknowledge the threat this system posed as it hadn’t entered their area of responsibility. Public pressure on social media eventually led to them issuing warnings before it did enter their area. This was such a large and ferocious system that many, including myself, got on to social media to warn people. This earned us insults and threats from people using the VMS Facebook name.
I can’t recall what I was feeling in the build up to the arrival of Cyclone Pam as my business is boat orientated so we obviously had a lot to do to prepare, including craning our own boat out of the water. Preparing for such a big storm took up all of my mental capacity and I really had no time to feel anything. I guess, in retrospect, I was functioning on autopilot – some natural instinct directing me to do what I was doing. Sort of like a flight or fight situation.
At one stage, as Pam drew closer, I was to be seen with a wooden carving in my hand “conducting” the storm with “big” music on the stereo.
After accepting that we were going to get a very close pass on this category 5 system we prepared the work side of our lives as best as we could. We have a cyclone rated building as a workshop and we put all business records, computers etc. into a work vehicle and parked it inside the workshop. We also left our other work vehicle inside the workshop and relied on public transport until the storm was over.
We had been through a smaller cyclone before – but on our boat in a marina and not in a house on land. For this reason we had a fairly good idea of what to expect and how to prepare with only a few adjustments for protecting ourselves in a building rather than aboard a boat. Our community is small and close knit so everyone shared their experiences of previous cyclones including lessons learnt and what to do to prepare.
At our rented accommodation we discovered that they didn’t have storm shutters, and it was obvious with the large trees growing all around us we would need them to protect from flying timber. These were quickly made by our wonderful landlords and fitted in place. We brought in a 150 amp hour battery, small inverter and LED light stand to provide lighting during the cyclone itself, and a 350 watt generator to provide basic power for fridge/freezer etc. after the cyclone passed. We also brought plenty of carbohydrate based food which was easy to prepare and wouldn’t require refrigeration (we use propane for cooking) and don’t forget the coffee.
Approximately 30 litres of clean drinking water was stored in various containers as well as fuel and oil for the generator. We live within a few metres of the water so toilet flushing etc. after the cyclone was not a problem with a bucket. All loose materials around the premises were secured; kindle, cellphone and laptop charged. We had basic first aid supplies as well as a course of antibiotics on hand.
As stated, our house is right on the water (actually a lagoon) and was facing the worst of the expected wind so we made inspections of the foundations to ensure they weren’t likely to wash away. We had many big trees around us but I figured that if they fell during the early stages, they would miss the house, and if they fell later when the wind shifted they would help keep the roof on.
The VMS had finally discovered the wonders of blanket texting just before the cyclone and started issuing warnings. What those warnings didn’t contain was the expected wind direction, so people who couldn’t read a weather map had no idea what side of their homes was vulnerable. Traditionally cyclones come in with the northwest winds here, but this one started from the southeast so many were caught off guard.
Cyclone Pam Hits Vanuata Dead On
We hunkered down at home well before the onset of Pam, confident we had preparations in hand. As the wind built throughout the day, we built our bunker inside using two sturdy tables covered with a tarpaulin to shelter our precious mementos, passports, etc as well as offering us and our two cats a final refuge should we lose the roof.
Around six hours before the peak was due to hit us a glancing blow with less than a hundred knots of wind, the system changed course to pass directly over us (amazingly, we still had power and internet). At this stage I made the decision to extend our bunker by using our king size bed base to form a roof with mattress underneath, all covered with a tarpaulin. Winds were now forecast to be up to 130 knots.
The build up to the storm was very long with winds starting to rise at least 18 hours before the peak. They say there are three wind noises in a storm – howling, shrieking and moaning. For about 12 hours we had howling wind then a very short period of shrieking wind and then a couple of hours of moaning. I had never heard moaning wind before and never want to again.
As the peak happened around midnight, and we had shut ourselves in before midday with our shutters up, we weren’t able to see the storm unfolding. We could only guess what was happening as we heard flying debris hit our house. We retired to bed about three hours before the peak and actually managed to get some sleep through the worst of it. Our cozy cave was giving us a feeling of security.
Cleaning Up After a Category 5 Cyclone
The next morning we awoke to virtually no wind. We were in the lee of a ridge, and by then the wind shifted. Even though our house and work escaped virtually untouched, the destruction around Port Vila was extensive, and it was obvious that foreign assistance was needed immediately. Everybody has seen the photos so I won’t go into that, but I will describe the feeling around town as the first C17 Globemaster from Australia did a morale boosting low pass over town as it brought in the first planeload of aid. The sight of that plane did more for the people of Port Vila than the aid it carried.
Post cyclone cleanup demonstrated the true spirit of the South Pacific. I have not seen an outward sign of grief even though there is much to grieve over. Amongst the destruction, people are cleaning up with smiles on their faces. I even had a bus (minivan) driver refuse to take my money when I went to see if I could retrieve our work vehicles.
A Few Thoughts on What Happened
Mine and Sue’s relationship is pretty firmly founded in traditional gender roles, even though Sue is exceptionally strong when the shit hits the fan – and we have an unconventional lifestyle. I am acutely aware of my duty to protect those I love, and this places a burden on me that I am happy to shoulder. Many years at sea, and some military service, gave me confidence to know that I had done everything within my power to keep us safe.
I did however start second guessing myself when the winds were beyond anything I had experienced before and were making sounds I had never heard before. During this time, having my love by my side and trusting me was comforting.
Post cyclone cleanup demonstrated the true spirit of the South Pacific. I have not seen an outward sign of grief even though there is much to grieve over.
Could I have done more? Yes I believe I could have protected my family better by living in a temperate climate and working a 9-5 job. Do I want to experience the same forces again? No way, but I have been strengthened and educated by the experience.
The Female Perspective
Note: This section was written by Sue Green, Peter’s fiancée
Pre Cyclone Pam
We had a week to prepare for the coming of Pam, which in some ways was a bonus in terms of getting fully prepared, but on the down side it also allowed anxiety to build. It was the total topic of conversation, and being around people who were full of doom and gloom wasn’t easy. I found myself alternately being a little bit crazy (I am anyway at the best of times) and fighting anxiety attacks. At one stage, as Pam drew closer, I was to be seen with a wooden carving in my hand “conducting” the storm with “big” music on the stereo.
During Cyclone Pam
I actually felt better once she ramped up as I knew that at some point soon the waiting would be over and Pam would be over. I had faith that we were as prepared as we could be. Pete takes such things seriously and is eminently sensible during crises. Wearing ear muffs helped immensely in cutting down the frightening noise, and I tried to focus on breathing deeply and slowly to keep myself calm. One of our cats snuggled between us at the height of the storm and stroking her was soothing.
Post Cyclone Pam
The shakes and tears came when we finally got communications again and could contact friends and family. I believe that they possibly went through more of an ordeal than us – they could see and hear on the news and social media what was happening, and the not knowing if we were OK for hours/days must have been scary. We knew we were OK; they didn’t. It was certainly a relief when it was over, and in some ways I feel guilty that we were so fortunate and our damage was minuscule.