Nowhere to run. Tuvaluans consider their future after Tropical Cyclone Pam

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By Rosemarie North, IFRC

Every 16 February, the island of Nui in the north of Tuvalu commemorates surviving a great storm in the 1800s, which they call Bogin te Ieka (the Day of the Flood in the Kiribati language) but Tropical Cyclone Pam, which passed over the island on March 10, will go down as the worst storm in living memory.

For three days, Pam’s category five winds lashed the island with waves which surged over the entire island. Before the storm, the electricity was switched off, plunging the island into darkness and cutting off communication lines that wouldn’t be re-established for three days.

At first, Niutao resident Maulio Kaipeti, who has impaired mobility stayed in his house on the coast and hoped for the best.

“When the waves were getting bigger, that worried me. I just waited. I thought, ‘If it’s God’s will to wash me away, so be it’.”

In the end, friends and family urged Maulio to move. They brought a tractor that carried him to a relative’s house. Although his house was damaged, Maulio wants to return home as soon as possible and regain his independence.

Many other Nui residents like Uati Lutelu can’t wait to move inland, away from rising sea levels and future storms.

“The wind from TC Pam wasn’t really that strong, but the waves were so strong they damaged concrete houses. We don’t want to go back to where we lived before. We don’t feel safe.”

Uati is grateful for tarpaulins the Tuvalu Red Cross distributed to provide temporary shelter for his family. He now plans to build inland where his family also has land.

Tolipoa and Munaloy Soaliki are in their 70s and camping on a raised platform at a relative’s home.

They brought just one suitcase with them when they evacuated. They were able to move their pigs, but not their poultry. Initially they used coconut leaves to dry themselves. Then the Red Cross gave them towels and a blanket.

The storm has demoralised the community. People are staying with relatives. Some small households of two or three people have swelled to 20 or 30.

As soon as the seas were calm enough, Red Cross volunteers reached the islands, carried out assessments and distributed kitchen equipment, personal hygiene items, mosquito nets, water containers full of safe drinking water and tarpaulins and toolkits for building shelters.

On Niutao, the Red Cross had already set up a storage shelter with emergency relief items. It was one of five islands with pre-positioned stocks. The remaining network of storage shelters was due to be completed later this year in a collaboration with the Australian and New Zealand Red Cross societies, the New Zealand Defence Force and the Building Safety and Resilience in the Pacific project.

A week before the storm, the Red Cross had broadcast a radio programme with Tauala Katea, the scientific officer at the Tuvalu Meteorological Service in Funafuti. Back then, Tauala’s data showed a risk of high winds and storm surges up to two to three metres posing a risk across Tuvalu’s low-lying atolls and islets, whose highest point is just 4.6m above sea level.

“I was really surprised how bad it was and how far inland the waves came. No-one expected it to be that bad. I calculated that if the storm surges had happened during the highest tides (king tides)they would have been up to six metres.”

Tuvalu is comprised of a group of nine small islands with a landmass of 26-square-kilometres dotted across 900,000 square kilometres of sea. Six-metre waves would have had disastrous consequences. As Tauala says, “there’s nowhere to run”.

Given how crucial forecasts are, will Pam’s destructive waves mean a change to the model the Met Service uses to warn people? It’s more complicated than that, says Tauala.

Existing maps of the ocean floor concentrate on places of interest for fishing or tsunami warnings, not the shallower areas around Tuvalu’s islands.

“It’s really hard to do the modelling because we don’t have enough high-resolution bathymetry data (measuring ocean depths) on the near-coast. So we can’t run any probability modelling on how a wave of a certain height can penetrate the land.”

Cyclone Pam has redrawn the map of Tuvalu, scouring away coastlines, cutting an island in half, and making one islet disappear altogether.