Cook Islands Ombudsman Niki Rattle 22061210.
Photo: Matthew Littlewood
Cyclone Martin was one of the most devastating events in the Cook Islands history, but nearly 25 years on, Niki Rattle remembers the resilience of the Manihiki community. The former secretary of the Cook Islands Red Cross and current Cook Islands Ombudsman talks to Matthew Littlewood about the event.
It was a cyclone that hit with
great force, and its impact was felt for weeks and months subsequently.
But for the Red Cross team who
arrived on the scene on November 3, 1997, two days after the cyclone hit, they
had no idea what they were in for.
“We had no idea, because there
was no strong communication with the island, other than through Australia. I
don’t think anybody had any idea about what we were about to face,” Rattle
Rattle has strong ties to
Manihiki, having lived there for the first 10 years of her life, and going back
there to work as a nurse from 1990 to 1993, three decades later. But it was
arriving on the island after Cyclone Martin had torn through Manihiki that
remains seared into her memory.
“Going back after that cyclone
was like entering a war zone. I remember being worried about my family, my
father was there, my daughter was there. My father was reluctant to leave the
home, but eventually, some people picked him up and took him to the highest
point in Manihiki, which of course isn’t very high at all.
“With the way the high seas
were, the waves met each other. It was horrific.”
Rattle and the rest of the Red
Cross team helped established with the Ministry of Health two makeshift medical
and relief centres.
“We took the responsibility
very seriously. We were looking out for the people going out to work, and
making sure they were protected. It was our job to ensure any minor injuries
didn’t get worse as a result.”
Rattle remembers the struggle
to get hygienic products onto the island of Manihiki.
“It was something we didn’t
necessarily think about before we got there, but it became very apparent. We
brought in razor blades and shaving equipment for the men, and sanitary
products for the women. We almost ran out of knickers on the island. We had to
order them from Fiji,” she says.
Mental health was also an
issue for those entrusted with the search and rescue roles.
“The psychological effect on
people was marked. I remember my brother-in-law going around the island to look
for people,” Rattle says.
“He had trouble sleeping, many
people didn’t sleep. People were traumatised. We brought a psychologist from
New Zealand to help with counselling, but there was a great sadness to so much
of it, some people would have taken years to get over it. People left the
island and didn’t come back.
“I have often wondered how
different it might have been if we had a repatriation programme in place. But
what was good was the building of the homes with the assistance of the New
Zealand government – at least people had homes to go back to.”
every building on the island was destroyed by the storm surge, 10 people were
killed, and 10 more persons reported missing and were later declared dead by
the Cook Islands Coroner.
“It’s such a small community,
everyone knew each other, they were all like family. It was just so sad,”
“It still makes me cry today.”
Rattle remembers how things changed
in the community following Cyclone Martin, especially in the way families dealt
with their grief.
“When somebody dies in
Manihiki, that person’s burial is like a Royal family member dying. The whole
community comes together. It’s a grand affair, you have people lining the road,
carrying it from the road to the church,” Rattle says.
“So, what was sad about
Cyclone Martin was the fact that the people lost weren’t able to have that sort
“But what was beautiful later
was there was a monument built on the beach, which people could go back to pay
Resilience is a word that is
peppered throughout Rattle’s recollections of Cyclone Martin. She recalls how
people would “try anything” to maintain a semblance of normality.
“Men would rescue bikes which
had been submerged in water, and somehow getting them to start again. It was
incredible,” Rattle says.
She recalls that it was
“mostly men” who had been left behind in the aftermath of the cyclone, with most
women and children evacuated to Rarotonga.
“We had these guys working
really hard, clearing the road, clearing the debris so you could move around
the island without hurting yourself. At the end of the day, the men would all
congregate at the makeshift centre,” Rattle says.
“What saved so many of them
was their faith. They would sing their hearts out. I would watch the sheer
emotion that they brought to those church songs, and to the reading of passages
from the Bible.”
Despite the sheer damage
wrought and lives lost, Rattle believes if it weren’t for the response from all
the different agencies – from the Australian and New Zealand and Cook Island
governments to non-government organisations such as Red Cross – it could have
been even worse.
“The Red Cross was just so, so
busy throughout the six or so weeks after the Cyclone,” Rattle says.
“We started bringing in shorts
and singlets and clothes for all the people helping out. It was a way to keep
morale high during what was an often-traumatic event.
“But it was also simple things
– people wanted paper and pens so they could write back to their families.”
After Cyclone Martin, more
than 360 people on Manihiki, about half the island’s population, were evacuated
“You have this island with
such natural beauty. People who live on the island are very resilient. They put
up with the hardship of the costs of shipping and airfares. Those who live
there do so because they love it,” Rattle says.
“Being able to access food
from the sea, food from the land is quite something.
“But I don’t think you ever
get over an event like Cyclone Martin. It was a once in a lifetime event.
“Although I feel sad at what
remains lost and will never return, when I go back to Manihiki, I still love
the island for what is there. It feels like home.”