1 Feb 2016

Trials and triumphs on Vanuatu's Tanna, a year after Pam

10:03 am on 1 February 2016

The scars of Cyclone Pam are still visible on Tanna.

Cyclone Pam destroyed much of the infrastructure on the southern Vanuatu island of Tanna when it struck in March 2015.

Cyclone Pam destroyed much of the infrastructure on the southern Vanuatu island of Tanna when it struck in March 2015. Photo: RNZI / Jamie Tahana

Many trees still lie where they were uprooted and tossed more than 10 months ago, the trunks of the few coconut palms that were spared sit bare of any leaves or fruit.

Many houses still have bright blue tarpaulins serving as roofs and some buildings have been abandoned altogether, their crumbled remains sitting lifeless in the harsh tropical sun.

This small isolated island about 200km south of Vanuatu's capital, Port Vila, was one of the worst hit when Cyclone Pam tore through the country in March last year. The category five storm hit the island directly with winds reportedly well in excess of 250km/h.

"It was a monster," said Glenys, a young woman from a village in the island's southwest.

"Before the cyclone, the island was covered in big trees and nature. The cyclone came and damaged all our trees and nature. And, yeah, it [was] like a desert.

"The place is unrecognisable now," she said.

An abandoned plot in Tanna, Vanuatu.

An abandoned plot in Tanna, Vanuatu. Photo: RNZI / Jamie Tahana

In the cyclone's immediate aftermath there was widespread devastation on Tanna, with thousands of people displaced, homes flattened, and essential crops destroyed. What was normally a green, bush-covered island was left brown and bare, decimated by Pam's fury.

Within days a massive humanitarian aid mission, involving the Vanuatu government, foreign donors and militaries, and several NGOs, reached the island bringing shelter, building material, food supplies, and water.

"This was the country's largest ever natural disaster response," said Joe Natuman, the recently re-elected MP for Tanna, who was prime minister at the time disaster struck his nation of 83 islands until his ouster a few months later.

The first images emerge of destruction in Tanna, Vanuatu, after Cyclone Pam.

The first images emerge of destruction in Tanna, Vanuatu, after Cyclone Pam. Photo: SUPPLIED / Jeremy Pinero

About 90 percent of housing in the island's small, largely traditional, settlements had been destroyed, and public infrastructure shared a similar fate.

Almost a year on, Mr Natuman said, much of the infrastructure remained in a state of disrepair.

Outside the main settlements, many of the houses on Tanna are still built in the traditional way - a rounded hut with a wooden frame and thatched roof. It was these traditional houses that proved more resistant during Cyclone Pam than buildings made from concrete and steel, which were reduced to rubble.

But Mr Natuman said many people were still living under tarpaulins and tents as they waited for enough bush material to grow back to allow them to finish rebuilding their houses.

"They're waiting for, you know, coconut to have enough leaves and other bush material to dry out," he said.

"So a lot of houses are still not well repaired, it might take another few months, but that's a big issue in terms of peoples housing."

The first images emerge of destruction in Tanna, Vanuatu, after Cyclone Pam.

The first images emerge of destruction in Tanna, Vanuatu, after Cyclone Pam. Photo: SUPPLIED / Jeremy Pinero

The Tafea provincial disaster coordinator, David Tovurvur, said villages which rely on subsistence farming had struggled to get crops growing again in the wake of the cyclone because of the severe drought caused by this year's El Niño system, one of the strongest on record.

That prompted an emergency response in the latter half of 2015, involving both the national government and NGOs, to help supply water and food to drought-stricken areas.

"The El Niño hit hard, it was very difficult to grow," said Mr Tovurvur.

"For example, people would be waiting at the market for taro. As soon as the vehicle was there with all the taro, people were just going in.

"Food is still a big issue," he said.

But those issues appear to be easing.

Rain had been falling consistently since December, Mr Tovurvur said, and Cyclone Ula, which passed to the south of Tanna in January, had brought more much-needed heavy rain, which appeared to be easing the drought conditions.

Along the dirt road that crosses this island, only passable by taking a slow four-wheel-drive journey across terrain rough enough to rearrange one's internal organs, the mountainous landscape is once again green as trees and gardens begin to grow back.

And in the food gardens, villages are again starting to harvest, and the main market in Lenakel is again full of produce.

"Things are coming back," said Glenys. "Now, we're back to growing yams, mangoes, and bananas and we're all eating again."

Tafea provincial administration

Tafea provincial administration Photo: RNZI / Jamie Tahana

In the main town, Lenakel, most shops have reopened, albeit with temporary patching or cinder blocks holding down iron roofs, and the sounds of chainsaws, hammers and other tools fill the air with a symphony of reconstruction.

In his office at the provincial headquarters, a small building that sits by itself on a hill above Lenakel town, Mr Tovurvur said Tanna still had a long way to go and would continue to need international help for a long time yet.

But he also said the island's bounce-back from disaster had been nothing short of remarkable.

"The people on Tanna…we've been here for centuries," he said, leaning back in his chair, a grin spreading across his face.

"We're a resilient people, here. We always come back."

Get the new RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs