Rebuilding Vanuatu


People in Vanuatu were tracking the cyclone for almost two weeks before its arrival. During the tense week before it hit, everyone was hoping that it would just ‘move a little to the right’. Three days before the event, there was no longer much doubt. It was a Category 5 and it was going to hit us.

The conversation was everywhere. The Vanuatu ‘monster’ was coming and there was not a thing we could do about it except get ready. Amongst the ‘expat’ circle, parents were wondering whether staying in the country with their children was the responsible thing to do. Conversations in the supermarket switched from the usual optimistic ‘it is just a bit of wind’ to the no longer avoidable questions. ‘What will we do if everything is destroyed? Will our life here be over? Will my house still be here the day after?’

Within the local population, with less access to online information, the fact that confusion reigned regarding its severity only two days before the ‘D-day’ was clear. Some people had heard that the cyclone was not coming; it was ‘very far away’. Most people were not aware of its predicted intensity or how close it would pass.

The weather was calm and lovely on Thursday 12th but the tension was palpable. Trucks drove around town carrying 15mm plywood, trollies at the supermarket were filled with boxes of water and candles. Being such a huge system, nobody quite knew exactly when the worst of it would reach each different island. Those who thought their homes were not safe packed up their houses as well as they could and with one last farewell, moved to a safer location. Will you be here tomorrow? Will I ever sleep in my bed again? Friends and families piled up in each other houses. There is nothing quite like feeling you may lose everything you have, and knowing this in advance.

On the morning of Friday 13th, the cyclone was working its way through the Northern islands of Vanuatu, where it did pass a little to the right. In Port Vila, the wind and the rain started to pick up slightly but at 3pm it was still nothing more than a reasonable size storm. Not knowing how bad it would get, people were walking around in the streets, waiting for it to worsen before seeking refuge. Text messages from Digicel and TVL started to come in on the phones, informing the population on the alert level and proximity of the cyclone.

At 4pm, many people, myself included, were thinking, is this it? Because this is really not so bad at all. After spending the last twelve days with my guts all wound up in a ball of anxiety, the waiting was the worst. The day had finally come, it was 6pm and was this all? It was from then onwards that the cyclone started to resemble the beast that it was to become. Not quite knowing what to expect, but having seen footage of Category 5 cyclones, I thought I knew how bad it would be. Well, I was wrong. It was more intense than anything we could have expected. At 11.30pm the trees were blowing sideways. The wind was so strong that it no longer resembled wind but some sort of beast, thick and visible, battling with the force of a million horses. Rain was bubbling under the windows, climbing up the glass instead of down it.

At 11.30pm, in the village of Mele, Ben Silva was battling the wind, standing outside on top of his roof were he would spend most of the night, hammering back bits of corrugated iron as they came lose.

On the exposed, small island of Makira, people were seeking shelter in the five buildings that were left standing. Parents held doors and windows shut while children huddled in a corner.

At The Grand Hotel, Thomas Masson, food and beverage manager, with dozens of the staff who had sought refuge at the Grand, were bucketing water out of the lower floors while a group of Croatian footballers were helping and laughing, thinking nothing of it (our country is at war, in our country it is like this every day!). Upstairs, an elderly couple bunkered inside their bathroom, built into a fortress with every available mattress.

At the Holiday Inn resort, a mother crawled on her hands and knees trying to make it to the conference room while her teenage children hid in the bed.

At Seaside area, another two mothers had just partially lost the roof of their house and were trying to construct a shelter around the children’s bunk beds with every mattress they could find.

At Bellevue, an elderly couple rushed out of their house as their roof was stripped off and the entire house disintegrated around then.

On Tongoa island, a group of men took turns pushing each other over the roofs of their houses to try to secure them, before the wind blew them back down to the ground. Anchored at Epi, three brave men stood on a barge, geared up in yellow rain coats and diving goggles. ‘The rain was so heavy we could not see, so we put the goggles on to keep the rain and wind out of our eyes’. They spent the night on the barge, securing the ropes against the cyclone. There are 188,000 stories of that night.

 People in Makira island receive relief aid from Save the Children, Red Cross and Australia Aid. Photograph by Valerie Lebeau, IGmedia.

People in Makira island receive relief aid from Save the Children, Red Cross and Australia Aid. Photograph by Valerie Lebeau, IGmedia.

Aid is on its way

On the night of Friday 13th, Category 5 Tropical Super-Cyclone Pam hit the Shefa Province and continued its way south. 250km/hour winds with gusts of up to 320km were recorded in Efate and the Shepherd Islands. The worse affected areas were the islands of Efate, Tanna, Erromango, Epi, the Shepherd Islands, Pamma and east Ambryn. It is estimated that over 18,000 houses suffered damage or were destroyed. On the island of Tanna, 90% of houses were damaged or destroyed. In Erromango, Emae and the Shepherd Islands, over 70% of houses were damaged. The cyclone affected over 188,000 people, more than 82,000 of them children with 364 school classrooms sustaining damage.

The cyclone destroyed the water sources of communities across the islands, damaging and contaminating 80% of rainwater structures and wells in the Tafea province and 32% in the Shefa province. To everyone’s surprise, only eleven fatalities were reported.

In Port Vila the next morning, the wind was still blowing and the skies were grey. Power, internet and phones were down and above the wind, it was eerie quiet. The radio in the car hissed its absence. Exhausted people all over Vanuatu started to resurface to survey the damage.

There is nothing quite like driving through a landscape the day after a category 5 cyclone. It was like waking up in a place that has been heavily bombed by a ferocious enemy army throughout the night. Fallen trees were everywhere; roads had disappeared under sand, mud and water. Buildings lay broken, debris all around; an unrecognizable landscape.

In the capital, people were on the move, trying to reach their houses, family and friends; dazed and confused, we searched for clear paths amongst the destruction. Up by the Harbour, a car slows down and the driver lowers his window. “Have you seen my boat? I can’t find my boat?” the confused face with bewildered eyes asked. “Your boat is gone mate, they are all gone, I am sorry,” was the response. Of the hundreds of boats moored in Port Vila Harbour, only a handful survived. By 11am chainsaws everywhere started to buzz, everybody already on the job, trying to wipe the cyclone off their front doors.

Promedical had already managed to assemble a team of 30 volunteers and were busy clearing the road to the airport in anticipation of the first aid planes to land. Some of the remarkable people who were there from day one had themselves lost everything in the cyclone. Long term Port Vila resident, Shaun McNamara ‘Mack’ lost his entire house, “We kept moving from room to room as each one collapsed until we ended up holing up in the last room that was standing,” he explained. He arrived at Promedical on the Saturday morning asking how he could help and for the next four days he carried water to Efate’s villages and helped with the removal of debris, “I did not have a house to go back to so I stayed and helped,” he said. “I did not do anything extraordinary, just what needed to be done,” he added.

In the days after the cyclone, Promedical assembled a team of 150 volunteers who called themselves ‘Renegade Aid’ and tirelessly distributed water, food and medical aid around Efate. Promedical, being a small-size local non-for-profit organization, was one of the fastest NGO’s to deliver help to the villages around the island. Working together with other local not-for–profit groups, such as Wan Smolbag, they devised and coordinated the relief effort. During the following two months, Promedical delivered over 200,000 litres of water and 2.5 tons of food, as well as tarps, tools, building materials, fuel for chainsaws and emergency medical help. Much of it donated by private individuals and distributed by volunteers who contributed their time and vehicles to the effort.

Aid started to fly in on the days after the cyclone and organizations such as Oxfam, Save the Children, Red Cross, Adra, Care International, Unicef and others assembled their emergency relief teams on the ground, bringing hundreds of disasters response experts to coordinate their response. The NDMO (National Disaster Management Office) started work on the damage assessment and aid delivery plan across the country. Meetings were held by the hour and groups taking care of different priorities were formed. Being an island nation, the logistics of aid delivery were complex. Airports, roads and wharfs in the outer islands were damaged, making delivery to some places virtually impossible. During the first weeks after the cyclone, the people in the outer islands waited.

Although the response has been critiqued as ‘slow’, the challenges that the distribution presented were many and the response and commitment of aid organizations to Vanuatu was simply enormous.

A board member of the Vanuatu Society for Disabled People stands in the wreckage of the Society’s offices. Photo by Graham Crumb

A board member of the Vanuatu Society for Disabled People stands in the wreckage of the Society’s offices. Photo by Graham Crumb.

From March 20th to April 27th, over 151,774 tons of food and 70,261 tons of NFI (Non-food items) were delivered by aid organizations through the NDMO to the affected areas of Vanuatu. According to the NDMO logistics group, 7,287 tons were delivered to the Torba province, 22,134 tons to Penama, 12,153 tons to Malampa, 35,439 tons to Shefa and 144,842 tons to Tafea province.

Besides the delivery of food and water, organizations took on their own projects, rehabilitating water supplies and community infrastructure such as schools and hospitals in affected areas. Wells in South East Ambryn and water systems in Epau and Teoma bush were rehabilitated by Oxfam; over 19,000 children were immunized against Measles and Rubella with the help of UNICEF; the Australian government provided a total of AU$15 million in humanitarian assistance during the recovery.

Many individuals organized their own ‘Go fund me’ campaigns to look after specific communities. This is the case of David Girardeau, from Techno Bois Deco who organized a fundraiser to help his staff rebuild their houses. David and local boat ‘Serenity’, also delivered thousands of litres of water and building materials to the island of Emae. The Havannah resort organized its own fundraiser to help surrounding villages and the expat community delivered food, water and materials in their own boats to neighboring islands such as Nguna and Pele.

Many of the local yachts who survived the cyclone made themselves available to transport relief aid to the islands. The organization ACTIV teamed up with Okeanus and purchased 2.5 tons of root crops from the ACTIV farmer network in South West Bay, Malekula, to deliver to the affected islands of Epi, Tongariki and Tongoa.

The stories are many, and it is impossible to name all the individuals who through their own fundraisers managed to bring in and distribute hundreds of containers of donated goods. In an effort of huge solidarity, the whole country came together to reach out to the affected areas.


Unelco team. Photo by Valerie Lebeau, IGmedia

Unelco team. Photo by Valerie Lebeau, IGmedia.

When the lights came on

The cyclone caused substantial damage to power and water supplies, especially in the islands of Efate and Tanna. The speedy response of the main electricity provider, Unelco, can only be described as outstanding. Two days after the cyclone all water was back on and electricity was restored to hospitals, banks, fuel stations, government offices and main stores in the capital. By March 18th, electricity has been restored in down town Port Vila and a team of 35 experts from New Caledonia, Tahiti, Wallis and Futuna were on the ground helping restore power to the rest of the island. For the next two weeks, Unelco advanced steadily, restoring electricity to all areas of Efate, neighborhood by neighborhood. By April 3rd, 96% of electricity had been restored in Efate and the Unelco team moved on to Tanna. In Port Vila alone, there were over 1,500 connections replaced.

The availability of mobile phone coverage played an important role in the safety of people before and after the cyclone and the response from the two main telecommunications providers, Digicel and TVL, was no less than extraordinary.

Warning texts from the NDMO were sent through Digicel and TVL networks, advising people of the cyclone’s location and alert level. The fast restoration of networks post-cyclone ensured that people in the affected islands were able to communicate with relatives and ask for help if needed only days after the cyclone. Most of TVL’s network survived the cyclone in the capital and by Monday March 16th, the Digicel network in the capital was almost fully restored. By March 19th, Digicel had restored 56% of its network in Vanuatu and the main towns of Lenekal and Isangel in Tanna were operational by March 23rd.

TVL networks were restored in Efate by March 17th. The northern island network was mostly restored by March 22nd and the southern network was mostly restored by March 24th.


 This woman and her grandchildren walked more than ten kilometres from an emergency shelter back to their home near Teouma. Photo by Graham Crumb

This woman and her grandchildren walked more than ten kilometres from an emergency shelter back to their home near Teouma. Photo by Graham Crumb.

Plenty of Pina Coladas and nobody to drink them

Vanuatu’s tourism industry was greatly impacted by the cyclone. Tourism accounted for 33% of Vanuatu’s GDP in 2010. The damage to the industry by the cyclone is estimated at around one billion vatu. Ironically, it was not the cyclone itself that had the greatest impact but the number of cancellations and lack of bookings incurred post-cyclone. Although the country was badly hit, the cyclone did not create the same amount of damage across Vanuatu. The island of Santo, for example, was virtually unscathed and all tourist properties were up and running the next day. Booking cancellations were coming in fast to the bewilderment of resorts’ managers who were experiencing the beautiful sunshine and pristine Santo landscape as per usual.

In Port Vila, it only took a few weeks for properties to clean, clear and rebuild and less than a month later, 95% of resorts, hotels and properties were operating as normal. By the end of April, the green had come back to the island of Efate, the markets were back open, and the sun was shining. The loss to the industry in revenue amounts to millions of dollars, at a time when the country needs the income the most and has been, unfortunately undeserved. According to Vanuatu’s Government ‘Post-Disaster Needs Assessment’ released in May, the losses to the industry until August are estimated to be over VT3.6 billion. The spillover effect of a lack of visitors affected not only the country’s resorts and restaurants, but also the retail and food production sectors. In the commerce and industry sector, which makes up approximately 40% of Vanuatu’s GDP, the total damage caused by the cyclone is estimated to be around VT976 million with losses of VT2.2 billion.



Port Vila Harbour, by Graham Crumb.

Port Vila Harbour, by Graham Crumb.

Long time before bananas

The industry most affected by the cyclone has been without a doubt, agriculture. Unlike buildings that can be repaired in a few weeks or months, vegetable gardens take months to recover, while certain crops take up to four years.

Agriculture provides for 71% of income amongst the rural population who derive their revenue through sales from their own vegetable gardens and their work in the five main production sectors of copra, kava, beef, coffee and cocoa.

According to the FSAC (Vanuatu Food Security & Agriculture Cluster) Cyclone Pam Medium and Long Term Recovery and Rehabilitation Strategy 2015-2017, the damages to the agricultural sector were in excess of VT1.4 billion in destroyed physical assets and VT4.6 billion in losses created by disruption in supply. Agriculture was the most affected of the four sub-sectors, with 69% of losses and damages. Permanent crops such as kava, banana, coconut, coffee and cocoa were the most affected. It is reported that almost half of the cattle, pig and chicken populations died in the most affected areas. In Port Vila, commercial poultry farms lost the majority of their chickens, numbering many thousands.

In terms of food security and agriculture, Tanna, Erromango and the Shepherd Islands were the worst affected by the cyclone. The FSAC found that the Shepherd Islands suffered a 100% damage loss with a very low level of access to food and recovery potential of crops. Tanna was one of the hardest hit islands in the Tafea province, with no opportunities for the population to conduct any cash-generating activities. A huge percentage of Tanna’s population depends on kava and coffee production for their income; both industries were hit heavily by the cyclone. Tanna Coffee is the main coffee producer in the country, procuring coffee beans from over 500 small-holder farmers on the island. “There are around 5,000 people involved in the local industry and with the expected 100 ton crop this year, it would have meant that almost 40 million vatu would have been paid directly to the farmers,” explains Terry Adlington, managing director of Tanna Coffee. “There will be no further raw coffee production for at least another eighteen months and it will be at least four years before we are likely to return to the pre-cyclone position of 100t pa.” Terry estimates losses in terms of raw production to be over 125 million vatu. “The main priorities are to assist in clearing and pruning the estimated 600,000 coffee trees that were damaged during the cyclone and to repair and replace the 45 decentralized raw coffee processing centres that were badly damaged. Another important area is to assist and encourage small-holder farmers to diversify their crops, with an emphasis on growing, processing and marketing fruit and vegetables as an alternative quick-return crop,” explained Terry.

The kava industry was also badly affected, suffering its biggest loses in South East Pentecost and the islands of Ambrym and Epi. “It is hard to say how long it will take to recover. Supply from the affected areas has been almost twice normal in April, as farmers harvested the mature plants that were damaged before they rot. But those plants should have been harvested at a later time of the year, when there will be a big shortage. Young plantations of one year of age have been completely destroyed in certain areas, and that means that in three years time we will have a period with lower production,” explains Michael Louze, exporter and chairman of the Kava Industry Group.


By Graham Crumb.

Drying was is left. By Graham Crumb.

The next six months

Three months after the event, the country has entered the next stage in the recovery process. Relief efforts have shifted from delivering immediate items of need such as food and water, to rebuilding the infrastructure needed for communities to be once again self-sufficient. Far from the worst being over, the Second Phase Harmonized Assessment report conducted by the Vanuatu Government in May, predicted the situation would worsen during May and June for 50% of communities in Shefa and Tafea provinces.

According to Vanuatu Government Post-Disaster Needs Assessment, the total economic value of the effect of the cyclone was estimated to be around VT42 billion. To give an indication of the massive scale of the damage, this is equivalent to 47% of Vanuatu’s GDP. It is also likely that losses are actually much higher than the given figure, due to the difficulties collecting data; the assessment was based on the best available information.

For the agricultural sector, recovery needs are estimated to be around VT1.9 billion. It will take until the end of the year for weaving handicrafts to be restored, another three months for vegetable and fruit sales to be restored, one year for copra and cocoa to be restored and up to four years for kava to be fully restored. Vegetable sales, kava, weaving and copra are the biggest cash-generating strategies for rural people in Vanuatu. According to the Post-Disaster Needs Assessment, short term priorities include the distribution of seeds, animal feed, planting materials, tools and equipment, and providing access to veterinary products and help with land clearing.

The estimated cost of recovery for the tourism sector was set at VT2 billion. The assessment established the need to increase Vanuatu’s current marketing budget of VT159 million per year to VT477 million during 2015 and 2016.

In the health sector, the total effect of Cyclone Pam was appraised to be VT976.7 million in damages and losses. 39 health facilities were damaged, comprising two hospitals, fifteen health centers and 22 dispensaries. The short-term Recovery Strategy cost to the Ministry of Health’s infrastructure, covering the next twelve months, has been calculated at VT 566.8 million.

The damage and losses incurred by the education sector are a total VT3,987,235, with Tafea province sustaining the highest damage. Damages to the transport sector, including infrastructure such as roads and bridges, are over VT3 billion, Shefa being the most affected province. The cyclone affected the livelihoods of over 40,000 households, limiting their capacity to generate income and resulting in losses of VT702 billion in personal income.

Thousands of houses and business were damaged, and every one of them will need to be repaired or rebuilt in the coming months so availability of materials and builders is a source of concern. Main hardware outlets ran out of generators the day after the cyclone and only a few days later, chainsaws and other clearing equipment was running low. “The generators were the first to go and later, it was gardening equipment, tarpaulins and jerry cans that people needed the most. It was hard work for us, to be able to keep up with the supply, but our staff worked very hard to get what was needed as fast as possible,” explained Nazario () from Port Vila Hardware. “We are confident that we will be able to meet the demand for materials and tools and we have increased our ordering to meet the demand.” Builders and tradesmen have been swamped with work, requiring extra help from overseas to be able to tackle the work load. “Since the cyclone, we have doubled our team from 40 to 80 staff as well as bringing in overseas builders to help us meet the demand,” explains Ryan Foots, director of building company Vancorp. “We have given over 100 quotations and are working on 25 different projects at the moment, all cyclone related. All suppliers have been working very hard as well to be able to meet the demand and are doing a great job at making sure that we have what is needed to rebuild the country,” Ryan added. Adam Chamberlain, managing director of Switched-On, is also confident that the country will be able to cope with the demand for tradesmen and materials. “Initially our main objective was to ensure our customers and residents of Port Vila were not in danger from any damage caused by the cyclone. We helped Unelco to reconnect power; this was a massive undertaking and Unelco did a fantastic job coordinating the repair works to ensure people had electricity supply as soon as possible. It was a major effort with our staff working twelve hours a day; we are very lucky to have a great team. Now we are working on repairs to business and private houses. No doubt this will be a huge task but I am sure all the trades companies in Vanuatu are ready for it.”

There were countless business in Vanuatu who worked many stressful long days after the cyclone and it was a remarkable effort from all the staff, many of whom had lost everything during the cyclone, yet showed up to work the next day and for the following weeks, worked hard long hours to do what needed to be done. Tradesmen and suppliers still have a long road ahead to rebuild the country but although materials and technical expertise will be available, it is money that is missing.


SMMars-2015-Vanuatu-146Books are left to dry outside Manua School (North Efate). Photo by Groovy Banana.

According to the humanitarian action plan from May 2nd, the government requirements to rebuild Vanuatu are US$29.9 million, of which US$16.4 was received through the Flash Appeal. The immediate focus was on strategies such as the restoration of safe water supplies and sanitation facilities in schools and health centers, repairing damaged health facilities and provision of temporary learning spaces and materials. The shortage of US$13.5 million that the country needs to rebuild will need to be acquired from donors and if given as loans, Vanuatu will have a debt that will hold back its economy for decades.

Post-Cyclone, two main themes for consideration have emerged when looking to the future. ‘Building back better’ is on everyone’s mind, with an emphasis on building stronger, cyclone-proof structures, especially public buildings such as schools, shelters and hospitals. In the housing sector, the medium to long term recovery needs identified by the government are; to ensure that communities have the technical assistance to build safer, to ensure that water needs are met when rebuilding communities, a revision of building standards, the identification of locations and structures suitable for safe evacuation sites, a multi-hazard mapping of urban areas and action plan identifying safe areas for future growth, and the adoption of a national housing policy.

The second theme is the clear need for diversification of crops and growing locations, with an emphasis on having a larger variety of crops in every island and more cyclone and climate change resistant crops.

Although the sun is shining, people are, as always, still smiling and Vanuatu is as beautiful as ever, the country has a long road ahead to its full recovery. We can only hope that those in charge are able to make the right and wise decisions that will build a better, more prosperous and equitable nation.

Story by Patricia Gil.