Vanuatu Combines Old And New Techniques For Disaster Prep

The death toll after Cyclone Pam hit the South Pacific nation was notably low thanks to new warning systems and ancient shelters. But saving the local economy may be harder than saving lives.

Life in Port Vila, Vanuatu, after Cyclone Pam
Life in Port Vila, Vanuatu, after Cyclone Pam
Claudine Wéry

PORT VILA — The property damage from the March 13 cyclone across the South Pacific archipelego of Vanuatu is huge, having hit some 80% of buildings and homes, and devastating farmlands and flattering the landscape.

But what may be most interesting in the aftermath of the destruction is the rather modest loss of human life. Initial reports of dozens killed was revised last week to a death toll of 11.

For this country of 83 islands that stretches across 12,200 square kilometers, (4,710 square miles) with a population of 267,000, issuing a complete review of the post-catastrophe situation in every village and town is an immense task. It's being tackled by the Vanuatu government in the capital of Port Vila with the help of international humanitarian missions.

With six active volcanoes and about 15 more that are dormant, as well as elevated risks for earthquakes, cyclones and tsunamis, Vanuatu is one of the most exposed places on the planet for natural disasters, as the 2014 World Risk Report noted.

Despite the force of Cyclone Pam, whose winds reached at 340 kilometers per hour (211 mph) through the night from March 13 to 14, the estimated number of killed and injured is far below similarly strong storms.

Even though Vanuatu remains an underdeveloped country, it has the capacity to confront natural cataclysms, frequent in this part of the world. Several days before Pam arrived, the island nation was already aware of the impending danger. A range of disaster prevention procedures were called upon, including a 24-hour warning center created in 2013.

Vanuatu includes a Ministry of Climate Change, which shares the same building with the national office of natural disasters as well as the meteorological department to facilitate communications during an emergency.

Natural safe havens

Sylvain Todman, a French geophysicist and engineer working for the governmental office of meteorology and geo-risks based in Port Vila, says the traditional know-how of the Melanesian communities also played a role in limiting casualties. Many found shelters in the nakamals, the local social meeting places assembled from natural materials and frequented by lovers of kava, a typical Pacific region beverage.

"The construction of the huts is embedded deeply in the ground," Todman explains. "The walls are low, and the interior is ventilated. All those features make nakamals resistant to cyclones."

Nevertheless, the destruction of subsistence farming, the main form of food production on the islands, risks triggering famine, warns Howard Waru, of Vanuatu's Agriculture Service Office. "It should be OK in the short-term, since people prepared food reserves and picked up whatever fell on the ground, but soon the situation may become critical."

On the main street of Mele, a village northeast of the capital, a big food market usually abundant in bananas, coconuts, yams, taro, sweet potatoes, grapefruit and tropical flowers has been empty since Pam tore through the island country.

A monthly sum of around 20,000 to 30,000 vatus ($185 to $277) was how much women made by selling their merchandise at the market. "I really don't know when they will be able to return," says Philemon Mansale, an eldery man who lives with his whole family in one of the numerous tin-roofed wooden sheds. "There's nothing left to sell."

His house shared the fate of many others and was left half-destroyed by the cyclone. Uprooted sticks and fruit rotting in puddles is all that's left of his garden.

"I'm almost certain that within a few months we will have to cope with famine in the country," says Runto Likiafu, an UN representative dealing with food and agriculture in Vanuatu. "We need to import food and supply the inhabitants with seeds."

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