25 Mar 2015

Pam's devastation: a first hand account

5:36 pm on 25 March 2015

One week after Cyclone Pam Radio New Zealand International's Koroi Hawkins has been travelling in the Shepherd Islands, viewing first hand the devastation left by the violent storm.

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Photo: RNZ / Koroi Hawkins

When I started out on this trip to the Shepherd Islands of Vanuatu one week after Cyclone Pam hit, I expected to write about horrific conditions and destruction, or about delays and inefficiencies in the relief effort.

I jumped onto a small landing craft called the Epi Dream with a little over a thousand 10-litre and 20-litre water containers, 100 bags of rice and some medical staff and equipment.

What I found instead of breaking news stories and a new angle on the cyclone recovery was real people, and with the pictures and and stories that follow, I hope to introduce you to some of the people of the Shepherd Islands who, like thousands of others in this country, have been hurt badly by Cyclone Pam.

Taking stock - no water, no food, no medicine

Naomi Charlie, Young Joycelyn and Rachel Malas on Mataso Island.

Naomi Charlie, Young Joycelyn and Rachel Malas on Mataso Island. Photo: RNZ / Koroi Hawkins

Rachel Malas, Naomi Charlie and Young Joycelyn were sitting in what little shade they could find, staring at the destruction around them.

Little Joycelyn, whose kindy was destroyed by Pam, was shy and maybe a little scared of the camera.

Naomi, on the far left, had just returned from Vila to be with her mother after a long absence. I found out later her mother had just been buried the day before. She died from injuries sustained during cyclone Pam and had waited for medical assistance for six days.

Water, food and shelter are still critical needs on Mataso Island.

Children of the storm

Children on Mataso Island were saved by sheltering in rocks in the hillsides.

Children on Mataso Island were saved by sheltering in rocks in the hillsides. Photo: RNZ / Koroi Hawkins

These children on Mataso Island are lucky to be alive. Their parents and guardians sheltered them in tiny gaps in the rocks in the hillsides when houses started to come apart.

Nine children were saved by one man who placed them in one such rocky refuge and shielded the entrance with his body.

Baby Boy Wonder

 Baby boy on Mataso Island

Photo: RNZ / Koroi Hawkins

I snapped a photo of this lovely baby boy because unlike the other children he was not shy and kept trying to grab the lens.

The next day, on nearby Emae Island, I met the baby's family members, who were grief-stricken at having had no news of the fate of their relatives. I showed them the pictures, and they all gathered around excitedly pointing at various relatives. When they reached the baby's photo they tut-tutted because apparently the baby's father had been in Vila during the cyclone.

When we left Mataso on Saturday there were no medical supplies or proper shelters on the island.

Cyclone Playground

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Photo: RNZ / Koroi Hawkins

Amid all the destruction and chaos, the kids on Mataso seemed able to find fun things to do. These lads found a coconut trunk blown over but still a few feet off the ground and converted it into their seesaw / trampoline, and were happily bouncing up and down on it when I walked past.

Critical medical condition

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Photo: RNZ / Koroi Hawkins

This was the man who reportedly saved nine children during the cyclone by pushing them between gaps in the rocks and protecting them with his body.

His feet were badly cut and starting to turn septic. Dr Jimmy was very worried about him and the next day was able to request a helicopter medivac.

On Sunday, while spending the night in Emae, I was showing photos to some people and they said the man's son was staying them. He came over and seemed really happy to see his dad but a little distressed as to his condition, so I reassured him that his father would be okay.

Miracle Survival

Tessi and Sakaio Cook.

Photo: RNZ / Koroi Hawkins

Tessi and Sakaio Cook insisted I come into their home, one of only two left standing on Mataso, so they could show me where they sat out the cyclone holding hands and praying throughout the night.

Grandfather Sakaio Cook stands in the doorway of his house, one of only two on Mataso that survived cyclone Pam, with daughter Leimas carrying baby Margaret, Rexson in the green shirt, Ellen in the blue shirt and Leika in the vanuatu dress(green yellow and red).

Photo: RNZ / Koroi Hawkins

The wind tore at their little shack, ripping off parts of the roof, but never fully demolished it.

They told me that when the wind started to pick up on the Friday of the cyclone, they told people to save the children, before taking shelter under this bench.

People on the island said they were surprised the house survived the cyclone given many stronger buildings were destroyed.

Reunion after the storm

Sakaio Cook, a proud and thankful grandfather, stands in the doorway of his house, one of only two on Mataso that survived cyclone Pam, with daughter Leimas carrying baby Margaret, and grandchildren Leika in the vanuatu dress (green, yellow and red), Rexson in the green shirt and Ellen in the blue shirt.

The children's father, John Mataasi, the island nurse, had gone to Vila the day before with some critically ill patients.

His small health aid post was smashed to bits by Pam.

Destruction on Mataso  Island, Vanuatu.

Destruction on Mataso Island. Photo: RNZ / Koroi Hawkins

Follow Koroi Hawkins' tweets as he travels in the Shepherd Islands

  • Nine bags of rice for 1200
  • Australian Foreign Minister visits cyclone-ravaged Vanuatu
  • Australian Foreign Minister visits cyclone-ravaged Vanuatu
  • First aid gets to Pam survivors on Vanuatu outer island
  • Vanuatu PM: "Please provide food"