Storms Slash Across Pacific Islands

PORT VILA, Vanuatu, January 7, 2003 (ENS) - Way out in the far southwest Pacific Ocean, unusual weather conditions are devastating far flung island nations. The latest victim is Vanuatu which was hit from December 21 through 24 by heavy rain with hail.

Large landslides and flash-flooding along many of the creeks and rivers resulted from the rain, according to reports from the Vanuatu National Disaster Management Office issued through the office of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Regional Disaster Response Adviser for the Pacific.

Vanuatu is a group of 83 islands in the southwest Pacific, 2,500km (1,553 miles) northeast of Sydney, Australia, and 800km (500 miles) west of Nadi, Fiji, governed as an independent republic by its indigenous people, the Ni Vanuatu.

The Vanuatu islands range from towering volcanic cones to those covered in rainforest to raised coral islands with wide beaches and deep natural harbors.

The damaged areas are on southern Tanna Island, a volcanic island, from Ipeukel on the southeast coast to Green Point in the south. Tanna is one of three main islands in Tafea, the southernmost province of Vanuatu.


Children of Tanna Island, Vanuatu (Photos courtesy Galen Frysinger)
Over 3,000 people were affected, but there were no fatalities, according to the Vanuatu National Disaster Management Office (NDMO). The water supply system is reported to be badly damaged by floods and landslides, and people now have to drink surface water sources that may be contaminated.

The worst damage appears to have been done to agriculture. The rain, hail and flooding destroyed almost all village gardens in the southeast. These gardens are the main source of subsistence food and of cash through market sales.

Imaki and Isiai villages, the areas west of Whitesand and around Port Resolution were damaged by the rains. Port Resolution is still cut off. Even foot travel to the stricken areas is still difficult as most roads were blocked and some bridges washed away.

Telephone lines were also cut and many villages from Ipeukel to Imaki are out of contact, as their telecommunications network is completely destroyed.

Local communities are responding within their means, and unaffected villages in West Tanna are sharing what surplus food and other resources they have with the storm victims in the south and southeast.

The only international assistance requested and received to date was for a helicopter, provided by the Government of France from New Caledonia, to conduct aerial reconnaissance of the affected areas.

The Vanuatu government is currently preparing a long term response plan and analyzing an assessment report from the team deployed by the Tafea Provincial Government and the NDMO on December 28. The team returned to Port Vila on January 2 to submit its report and recommendations.


Homes on Vanuatu are constructed of lightweight forest materials and are easily swept away by storms.
The Public Works Department is conducting a detailed assessment of the damage done to infrastructure, to form part of the provincial report.

The Rural Water Supply Unit and the Health Department are preparing an awareness program on health risks, for implementation during the emergency and recovery phases, and Telecom Vanuatu will take steps to start restoring lines shortly.

But Vanuatu is only this season's latest victim island chain. The southeast Solomon Islands were hit by Cyclone Zoe last week with winds of more than 300kph (186mph) and huge seas, causing widespread damage. There have so far been no reports of deaths, but there has been widespread criticism of the slow response to the storm victims on the damaged islands; it took six days for the first relief to arrive.

Papua New Guinea will send relief supplies to cyclone devastated islands in the Solomons, Foreign Affairs Minister Sir Rabbie Namaliu said in Port Moresby on Sunday.

Ponape Yuwa, PNG's high commissioner in Honiara, is gathering information as to how the country can best help those most affected, Sir Rabbie said.

The Solomons generally enjoy a stable weather pattern. Sir Rabbie said the government and people of Papua New Guinea were astonished to hear and see from media reports that this was one of the worst cyclones ever in the region.

"We in PNG have experienced many natural disasters ourselves and we feel very much for the people of Solomon Islands at this time," he said.

The U.S. territory of Guam, raked by a typhoon in December, is just now getting back on its feet, as John Wittmayer writes in the "Marianas Variety" newspaper dated January 8, 2003.

"It has been four weeks since Supertyphoon Pongsona (Bong-san-wa) slammed into Guam on December 8, and we are still suffering the after effects. I write using the battery power of my notebook computer since I still have no electricity in my house. At least I was able to shower this morning; what a luxury this has become. It was a full two weeks before a drop of island water moved through my house," writes Wittmayer. "Now it is back to normal for Mangilao, water some days, some days not." map

Map of the Pacific Ocean (Map courtesy Greenwich 2000)