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One year on from Cyclone Pam

Monday 14 March 2016 | Published in Regional


PORT VILA – One year ago, Cyclone Pam roared across most of the islands of Vanuatu with winds gusting at up to 320 kilometres per hour. Homes and structures were blown apart. But there was a surprisingly low loss of life.

The people of Vanuatu suffer cyclones so regularly that their local knowledge on how to bunker down and survive is seemingly innate. Their subsistence crops, however, were decimated, with estimations that 90 per cent were lost.

“Someone said it was like a giant weedeater had gone across and smashed thousands and thousands of strong, hardwood trees – just bent, smashed like matchsticks, “ said Joe Lowry from the International Organisation for Migration.

“A lot of the guys likened it to an artillery impact. Most of the trees were cut off at about waist height,” said Australia’s Third Combat Engineer Regiment commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel John Daunt.

A report from August 2015 put the financial toll of Cyclone Pam at $590 million, more than half of Vanuatu’s yearly GDP. The figures are similar to the costs being touted now in devastated Fiji nearly a year to the day.

As if a near-complete decimation of subsistence crops by the cyclone was not enough, Melanesia came to be caught in the grip of an El Niño-driven drought across Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.

It continues to compound the destruction left behind by Cyclone Pam as water sources dry up, crops fail, and residents continue to survive on food handouts.

“Crops were devastated and are yet to fully recover. Here your food garden is your lifeline, so people in Vanuatu are now dealing with an overwhelming double crisis,” said Charlie Damon, CARE Vanuatu programme manager.

On the one year anniversary of Cyclone Pam, aid organisations on the ground in Vanuatu continue to roll out drought assistance along with its post-cyclone response, even as other catastrophes strike the region.

As the situation in Fiji and Cyclone Winston becomes clearer, many disaster management organisations are finding its issues are largely tracking along similar lines with those that Vanuatu faced, just one year ago.