By Semi Malaki, Tuvalu Red Cross, and Rosemarie North, IFRC.
When Tropical Cyclone Pam bore down on the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu, more than 300 people on the country’s three northern islands had to evacuate from their homes when high winds and huge waves hurled sand, boulders and debris across tiny atolls and islets.
At its highest point, Tuvalu is only 4.6 meters (15 ft) above sea level, making it highly vulnerable to climatic events such as tropical storms.
Waist-high waves swamped northern Nui Island as storm surges generated by cyclone Pam coincided with seasonal king tides, forcing families to leave everything behind and take shelter further inland with relatives or in evacuation centers.
Senior Staff Nurse Tenako Reete said the storm had a significant impact on Nanumaga Island’s clinic. “The clinic was badly affected by storm surges. The storeroom was gone with the supplies inside. One of our nurses’ quarters was completely damaged – only the foundations remain,” she said.
Across the hardest-hit islands, several wharfs and jetties were damaged, making it difficult to bring in assistance. Waves destroyed crops and flooded gardens with sea water, filling deep swamp taro pits with sand.
The waves also opened up some traditional graves, where loved-ones are buried close to the family home. Some families lost everything, including rainwater tanks and outdoor latrines.
As soon as sea conditions allowed, Tuvalu Red Cross Society joined a government assessment team and brought water, water purification tablets, tarpaulins, blankets, mosquito nets, shelter tool kits, and hygiene and kitchen supplies to Red Cross branches in the northern islands. Volunteers and staff formed human chains in the surf to bring supplies ashore.
Olioliga Iosua, Secretary General of the Tuvalu Red Cross Society said the ferocity of the storm took people by surprise. “People are used to a variety of weather, but they never expected to find their houses full of sand or their water tanks washed away,” she said.
A huge clean-up operation is now underway, with tons of sand and debris being shoveled out of homes. Damaged houses are being repaired by local people together with Red Cross volunteers and government workers.
There are fewer people around to help with the task as most adults of working age are in the capital, Funafuti – for work or study – or are overseas.
“In our culture, we help each other. People stay at each other’s houses, its a community. We have to help each other,” said Iosua.
One of the first jobs after the storm has been to harvest essential root vegetables such as taro before they rot in plantations inundated with seawater. It will take three months before the next crop of sweet potato can be harvested and that depends on how salty the soil has become.
Tuvalu Red Cross society worker Tiira Kaio Taula – known as Siila – said pride often made people play down their needs. “When people know they’re in trouble and need help they say, ‘We’re fine, we’re fine’. They won’t admit they’re having problems,” he said.
Boats carrying fuel and provisions usually come each month but couldn’t come ashore because of weeks of rough seas, leaving people without fuel for their fishing boats.
A few hours after returning from a grueling two-week boat trip to the outer islands, Siila was ready to roll up his sleeping mat and pillow to set sail again. “I love the Red Cross. I love humanitarian work. It’s always a passion,” he said.
Although people are sharing what little they have, there are fears that there could be further hardships ahead. Drinking water is mainly obtained from rainwater collected on roofs and stored in tanks. Water supplies are expected to run low as Tuvalu enters the expected dry months of April and May, a situation the Red Cross is monitoring closely.