Cyclone Pam survivors rebuild with few resources

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PORT VILA (April 1, 2015) ─ Three weeks after Cyclone Pam devastated Vanuatu in the South Pacific, villagers across this small island nation have been rebuilding their communities themselves, with little help from the outside world. As Vanuatu is a remote and less developed country, the government lacks sufficient emergency resources to respond. So the people of Vanuatu have been fixing their homes themselves, using whatever they can to get the job done.

Among those that were hit hard was the village of Ekipe on the northeastern coast of Efate Island. Here 55 homes were damaged or destroyed by the cyclone’s winds and storm surge. After the terrible storm finally passed, the community banded together to clean up.

“We cleared the road first,” said Donald Friam, of Ekipe’s Community Disaster Committee. The villagers knew that the road would have to be cleared, before any outside aid would arrive. Since their crops were destroyed, they were hoping that they would at least receive food aid. However, very little aid arrived during the first week after the disaster.

“A hardware store came here, and they gave us two chainsaws and rakes,” said Friam. So the people of Ekipe set to work. They cleaned up the damaged school, raked up storm debris, and cut fallen trees that were blocking the village paths. Other than the charitable hardware donor, Habitat for Humanity was apparently the only other organization that came to Ekipe, to assess their situation.

The cyclone also destroyed the village kindergarten and a school room which were made of wood. The rooms in the main school, which was built with bricks, were slightly damaged. The solid school rooms served as a storm shelter for some of Ekipe’s residents, and several families that lost their homes lived in the school rooms afterward.

As the main school had little evident damage, it appeared to have been constructed by professional builders. When asked who built the school, Friam replied: “We did. We have carpenters, and we make our own cement blocks.” It turns out that many men in villages throughout the country are part-time builders, although they have not been formally trained.

In many villages of Vanuatu, a simple recycling strategy has been used to rebuild. If there was a house that was severely damaged in the community, the villagers recycled the remaining usable building materials, and used them to repair nearby damaged homes. While the villagers had good intentions, it could lead to overcrowding in the repaired homes.

In addition, the extent of damage may not be evident from the seemingly unaffected houses in a village though bare cement foundations pointed to the cyclone’s effect.

Habitat for Humanity is currently organizing a shelter repair program, to augment and complement what the self-recovery work that the villagers of Vanuatu are already doing. Tools, building materials, and technical training for repairs and retrofitting will be provided, to improve the durability of homes.

“We need hammers, nails, cement, roof cutters and corrugated iron rooftops,” said Friam.

This type of shelter assistance is urgently needed. The people of Vanuatu want to rebuild their homes, so that they can withstand storms better than they did before.