21 Mar 2015

After the storm: Vanuatu's slow recovery begins

10:51 am on 21 March 2015

Radio New Zealand reporter Kim Baker Wilson reflects on a dramatic, and occasionally traumatic, time reporting from storm-ravaged Vanuatu.

I arrive back in Auckland today after a frenzied three and a half days in cyclone-ravaged Vanuatu.

It is always difficult leaving such stories knowing there are many more to tell, and knowing of the struggle still ahead for the people who have been giving their stories to you.

We become attached to those people and the world they now live in. It is only ever our world for a few days or weeks.

A mother and infant who happened to be outside the national immunization storage facility.

A mother and infant who happened to be outside the national immunization storage facility. Photo: RNZ / Kim Baker Wilson

The people used one phrase to describe the storm we know as Cyclone Pam - "the monster".

These were people who were no strangers to violent Pacific cyclones and the danger and destruction they can bring. But everyone said this was a storm like nothing they had endured before.

Buildings we saw in Vanuatu were twisted and shredded apart, or had largely vanished altogether.

The roads were littered with endless trees, contorted roofing iron, shattered timber and lost belongings. Some buildings were left with walls, while some buildings were left with nothing.

The displaced family staying next to me tried almost every day to dry their sodden books and clothing.

Dust started swirling as mud that had built up on the roads started to dry out under the hot Pacific sun.

Children walking down a street after vaccination teams visit the area.

Children walking down a street after vaccination teams visit the area. Photo: RNZ / Kim Baker Wilson

Thick smoke started to fill the air soon after my arrival as people moved swiftly to burn the trees that toppled.

The re-build, amazingly, started immediately.

But re-building of lives will take much longer. The children crowded into Port Vila's hospital, in beds and on the floor, was a crushing sight.

A framed picture of Jesus Christ looked down on one of the many abandoned, damaged wards. One man would later tell me people had to be thankful to God for their survival.

At a media briefing late on Friday, Vanuatu's Prime Minster Joe Natuman said it was thought 165,000 people were affected by Cyclone Pam. It is about two-thirds of the population.

He said his government will struggle to feed them over the coming months, and he made a direct appeal for food aid.

Radio New Zealand International reporter Koroi Hawkins works without power.

Radio New Zealand International reporter Koroi Hawkins works without power. Photo: RNZ / Kim Baker Wilson

Follow Koroi Hawkins live tweets from Vanuatu

There is incredible damage around almost every corner, so much so that after a while it becomes hard to see, because it begins to look normal.

Some people joked that they had sea-views now that the trees had disappeared.

But the people were especially resilient and put themselves to work in the most trying of conditions.

Announcements on the radio declaring where help was needed were followed with reminders to bring chainsaws and bush knives.

Aid workers scrambled where they could to beat disease.

The national immunisation storage facility was washed out, and its large cool store cut off from power.

There were frantic efforts to find a generator to chill the vaccines again before they became useless in the heat.

Each morning, vaccination teams met in a darkened room with only emergency power to plan the day ahead, in a bid to stop a feared nationwide outbreak of measles.

The skin of the many vulnerable children in the poorer areas I then saw getting their injections was blighted and blemished with various skin ailments. Sickness can spread so easily.

An honest journalist covering disaster and tragedy will admit to having times where they lose the shield they put up to cope with the conditions, where they have a moment of weakness or shock.

Mine came when I was outside my motel trying to find a clear signal to file my stories.

I had a bloody sore on my foot from the walking I was doing. Suddenly fly after fly landed on it, crawled around and lingered on it, and would not be shooed away.

More flies made direct landings on the wound and I had to wonder what it was like for people without access to shelter and without access to the most simple of medicines.

The inside of the national immunization storage facility.

The inside of the national immunization storage facility. Photo: RNZ / Kim Baker Wilson

Tiredness compounded the sudden sadness.

My RNZ colleague Koroi Hawkins and I were filing at night without power for my whole time there. We could charge our equipment during the day elsewhere, but it was followed by a rush in the dark to upload our material before our laptops and our phones went blank.

A fractured communications network meant sending even the smallest of files proved difficult and patchy.

What we filed had to be prioritised against how much battery power we had left. I hope what we got through helped you see and hear.

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