Cyclone Pam’s impact food for thought

Thursday March 19, 2015 Written by Bishop Paul Donoghue Published in Church Talk

Just last week, the Religious Advisory Council set the date for our thanksgiving service for the end of the cyclone season.

It is  likely to be held on the evening of April 12 at the National Auditorium. While the official end of the cyclone season is April 30, we know from experience that cyclones can come early and very late. Mother Nature does not always follow our calendar. 

Cyclone Pam hit islands in the south of the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu and especially Vanuatu just last week, and I am sure we are all very conscious of the destruction it caused in these countries. 

We would all have paused to think about how this powerful cyclone has changed the lives of so many, as they have lost so much. 

Uppermost in our minds would have been the thought, ‘It could have been the Cook Islands. It could have been us again’.

In my four years in the Cook Islands I have frequently heard Cook Islanders speaking on local television of cyclones they have experienced in the past and what the experience was like for them. It is natural that any experience that is beyond our control and shows us how vulnerable we are, will take on an importance in our lives that we will not readily forget.

I am no expert on the causes of cyclones. But like many of you, I have experienced my share and in this article I aim to share a few observations that have stayed with me as a result. In my 11 years of living in Vanuatu from 1985 to 1996, I can’t remember a year when we did not have a cyclone. They were frequent enough too in Fiji. Some years there were more than one. The first hurricane I experienced was Cyclone Uma in 1987, in which around 30 people lost their lives. Certainly I have not forgotten it.

Two observations have remained with me. For some reason, most of the cyclones I have experienced have come during the night. The next morning as dawn breaks, there is an eerie silence which stands given the earlier howling of the wind, which can be loud as Boeing 747 jet taking off, and all the noise from the rain and debris striking the house. 

People start to emerge from their battered homes and after a while you hear a hammer striking – at first one, then another – then more. People are desperate to start rebuilding, to get the roofs back on their homes so they can have some shelter from any more rain that might come after the cyclone has passed. Life has to go on.

How many times have these people started all over again? It stems from the desire to live! And yet we know of some people who become bound by their grief and are unable to recover from loss or pain. By choosing God’s promise as our own and by accepting Christ’s consistent teaching that the greatest mercy and faith can be found among the little, the meek, the humble, we too can rise from our pain and find not only healing, but also such beautiful hope. This surely is our prayer for the victims of cyclone Pam at this stage - that they can discover hope to start again.

The other thing I noticed after a cyclone was the time spent waiting for the outside world to know of your plight. It could be one day, two or even longer, before the phone was reconnected. Eventually the sight of an Air Force Hercules or Orion plane flying overhead was reassurance that others were thinking of you.

The damage done to food crops was one measure of the strength of a cyclone. You knew it would be eight to 10 months before the taro would be back – perhaps a shorter time for kumara. How important it was for aid supplies to come in. What surprised me when food aid was shared out was that often a family got only a 25kg bag of rice. I knew that would feed a large family for just two or three weeks. I asked myself how they would survive the months before their gardens recovered. Yet they never complained. They were so grateful for what they had received and for the fact that they had not been forgotten, that someone had helped. And I am sure that here in the Cook Islands we will contribute to the victims of Cyclone Pam through the channels that will be set up.

I ask is there any more we can do? 

Perhaps the way to begin is by saying what not to do. Do not go down the road of wasting opportunities to do good by going in the wrong direction! 

Don’t blame this and other natural disasters on God. Earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes and other disasters that hit guilty and innocent alike are never a punishment from God. To say otherwise means offending God and man too.

Natural disasters can, however, be taken as a warning against complacency. In this case, they can be seen as an admonition not to delude ourselves that science and technology will be enough to save us. The reliance on science and technology can become a problem in itself. If we fail to impose limits, they themselves may become the greatest threats of all.

Our Cook Island leaders are given the opportunity to attend international meetings, giving them the opportunity to meet formally and informally with world leaders. Hopefully at these meetings they can voice our concerns about climate change and the like. 

My own church leader, Pope Francis is aware that for 20 years, world leaders have made commitments to improve the situation. Yet these agreements are to a large extent an exercise in futility because they have not been honoured, despite the warnings. 

Pope Francis is doing his best to remind world leaders to help create a positive outcome to keep global warming below devastating levels. And I am sure our Cook Island leaders are speaking up on these same issues too.

Cyclone Pam is a timely reminder to us that we are all co-creators and stewards of God’s creation. The environment must be seen as God’s gift to all people, and the use we make of it entails a shared responsibility for all humanity, especially the poor and future generations.

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