Solomon Islands

Conflicting reports, still no rescue in Solomons

News and Press Release
Originally published
Pacific Islands Development Program/East-West Center
With Support From Center for Pacific Islands Studies/University of Hawai'i

HONIARA, Solomon Islands (Radio Australia, Jan. 3) - There are conflicting reports over the effects of Cyclone Zoe.

A freelance photographer's aerial report is at odds with an aid official's assessment of the effects of Cyclone Zoe, which hit the islands of Tikopia and Anuta in Temotu Province in South-East Solomon Islands last Saturday.

The first assessment of the plight facing the islanders was made on Wednesday, when a freelance cameraman from New Zealand, who specializes in chasing and filming storms, chartered a light plane and flew over the area.

Geoff Mackley says after years of tracking and chasing storms he still wasn't quite prepared for what he saw.

"It used to be, I imagine, a heavily forested tropical paradise. Well it basically looks like someone has dropped an atomic bomb on it," he says.

"Every tree has either been shredded just back to the bare trunk, or bowled over. And that kind of devastation can only be caused by winds around about 300 to 350 kilometers an hour.

"The sea has come a long way inland. There is gravel and other debris burying buildings. There are pieces of buildings sticking up where there obviously used to be villages. And now there is a beach," says Mackley.

"We probably counted, between myself and the pilot, probably 100 people just standing around, dazed, or a number of people came out of the wreckage to stand on the beach."

"People were trying to wave us down with white pieces of plastic and so on. But we couldn't land. There was nothing we could do," says Mackley.

But an Australian aid official on an Australian RAAF C130 that flew over the islands around the same time has drawn a different conclusion.

AusAid Assistant Director General Alan March says there don't appear to be any injuries or causalities, although there was damage to traditional houses.

"They'd been knocked over," he says.

"There was damage to crops and gardens. And there appeared to be people on the islands of Tikopia and Anuta going about their business, including fishing in the lagoon.

"In Anuta in particular, a number of houses, somewhere between 20 and 25 had been rebuilt. And although I must caveat that the observations were made at 500 meters from a circulating aircraft, there was no evidence of injuries reported," says March.

Disaster officials in Solomon Islands appear to prefer the AusAid assessment.

Martin Karani, Deputy Director the Solomon Islands National Disaster Management Office says the AusAid assessment is more appropriate.

"The New Zealand journalist that flew over, I don't know the height at which he flew but he flew really high to takes those shots. But certainly they are conflicting," says Karani.

"But we would take the Australian Air force because we've engaged them to do the aerial survey for us, and I think they flew at about 500 meters, and that is enough for them to make a good assessment.

"And based on their report we have decided to accept that their report is quite close to what we think happened."

In the light of the aerial photographs of the two islands, authorities have aborted plans to send a patrol boat and will now send a larger boat with relief supplies.

The new boat is expected to arrive late on Friday; a week after cyclone Zoe first hit the two islands.

The lengthy delay has been criticized by photographer, Geoff Mackley.

"If I can go there four days after the event in a light plane, then surely, and this is just one man, surely the government of somewhere could have dropped supplies," he says.

But Australia and New Zealand can't be condemned for not responding quickly enough to the emergency, according to Philip Walker, Regional program coordinator for the Pacific, who points out Solomon Islands is a sovereign and independent country and outsiders must work within its structure.

Australia has pledged A$50,000 to the relief effort, and a Hercules aircraft will be deployed carrying government representatives, aid officials, media and members of the National Disaster Management team.

January 3, 2003