A Royal New Zealand Air Force Hercules evacuated two-thirds of Manihiki to Rarotonga after Cyclone Martin. PHOTO: RNZAF 18102586
It was a cyclone like no other, and its impact is still felt by those who lived through it. Rebecca Hosking-Ellis talks to Cook Islands News senior journalist Matthew Littlewood about her memories of Cyclone Martin and the toll it took on the Manihiki community.
Martin ripped through Manihiki on November 1, 1997. In the days leading up to
it, there was some indication that it would be a big one, but Hosking-Ellis
says no one had any idea of how big it was.
The former police
officer for Manihiki was one of the two dozen or so who attended the 25th
anniversary memorial service at the Manihiki hostel in Rarotonga earlier this
week, and her memories of Cyclone Martin have not faded in time. She spoke to
Cook Islands News on Friday.
“You could see the
ocean. You could see the waves coming up. I was having a phone conversation
with the inspector, who told me ‘It’s okay Rebecca, the track of the cyclone
looks like it’s going to miss Manihiki’. I told him ‘No, it’s going to be bad’.
“There was so much
damage, a lot of people lost their homes, we lost our home,” recalls Hosking-Ellis,
who was the police officer for Manihiki at the time.
“We had one of
those old colonial houses. The walls were thick, they went down really quickly.
It was awful, we had to live in a tent for nearly eight months, but thankfully
the New Zealand Government assisted in building cyclone-protected shelters on
In the day after
the cyclone hit, Hosking-Ellis and others dialed Australia via satellite phone.
“There was a
family who rang their family in Australia, and the family rang Rarotonga police
headquarters. My instruction was to help with clearing the airport on Manihiki.
“This was on a
Sunday, and in Manihiki, Sunday was a day of rest. So, I had to explain to the
people on the island that we needed to clear the airport and that help was on
“We had to fill in
the holes (on the runway) that was caused by the waves, and we achieved that,
and the first Air Rarotonga flight was able to arrive. There were doctors and
nurses on that flight.”
the days following, assistance from Rarotonga and New Zealand arrived.
“When we had the
Hercules flight arrive on the Monday, I had to put women and children on the
flights to Rarotonga,” she says.
“We had to concentrate
on getting the work done. A lot of the search and rescue operations were done
by police who arrived in Manihiki on one of the flights, there were also some
locals who assisted us.”
The search and
rescue phase took two to three weeks, Hosking-Ellis says.
“A lot of people
were stuck and couldn’t be reached. Some of them remain missing to this day,”
The official death
toll from Cyclone Martin on Manihiki is 19 people; at the Coroner’s Inquest in
2004, 10 missing persons were declared dead.
the psychological toll was significant.
“We had one
counselor come to Manihiki in the days after the cyclone hit. He did his very
best, but he was so busy, and people were so traumatised. I felt very sorry for
him,” she says.
having to make do with very little.”
one of the people who helped assist with the makeshift relief centres on
Manihiki in the aftermath.
“It was a big
challenge because we had to ration everything,” she says.
“It was tough
telling people that there was only so much to go around, and you had to make it
last. People were tired, scared and even angry. But we had to make it last, we
didn’t know when the next shipment would arrive.”
still remembers the strain the event put on her family. Her son was seven and
her daughter was three.
“They were very
afraid. The living conditions were dire. But as a police officer, I was
prepared. We had things like clothes, and supplies. But they still remember it
to this day,” she says.
“My children had
nightmares. It really affected them; they would hear the wind and rain and
worry about it hitting them. It affected a lot of people.”
than 380 people, nearly two-thirds of Manihiki’s population, were evacuated to Rarotonga
in the days following Cyclone Martin.
was a struggle putting some people on the plane, Hosking-Ellis recalls.
“There were so
many men who did not want to go, they wanted to stay. It wasn’t just that they
wanted to help, but they didn’t know anywhere else,” she says.
“For me, I felt I
had to stay because I was a police officer and I knew the people.”
However, she joined
the others in Rarotonga for a few days after being advised to do so by the
then-Prime Minister Geoffrey Henry.
“He said to me,
‘your grandmother wants to see you, she’s begging you to come home’. I couldn’t
say no to either of them,” Hosking-Ellis says.
was relieved to see me. But I didn’t realise at the time the impact it had on
my children to leave them for those few days. It’s a lesson for me. It’s tough
trying to do the right thing. I never left my kids again.”
latest census results, the population of Manihiki is about 250 people, in the
year before Cyclone Martin, the population was about 670. Hosking-Ellis left
Manihiki in 2003.
“A lot people took
that flight to Rarotonga and never came back,” Hosking-Ellis says.
“They were too
afraid to go back. I last visited Manihiki in 2020. You can see the decline
“Every November 1,
you relive the event. That’s why I get emotional, because you can’t block it
out. We’re only human. We sometimes try to act tough, but it’s still with us.”
“One day I’m going
to write a book about it. I still think about it a lot.
Martin, Cook Islands people have taken cyclone warnings “very seriously”,
“If there’s a
positive that has come out of it, it’s that people have learned to listen and
follow instructions. They don’t want to see something so traumatic again.”