In our years of cruising to small out-of-the-way Pacific island nations, we have accumulated fond memories of places that many Americans barely know exist. When these small countries suffer a disaster, we always want to help out monetarily to support the recovery efforts, as a payback for the hospitality invariably extended to us by the warm and generous people of these islands.
Last weekend Hurricane Pam clobbered the small island nation of Vanuatu in what may have been one of the worst natural disasters to ever strike in the Pacific. Even now the extent of damage is not fully known, but reports are coming in of near total devastation caused by a direct hit from this Category 5 storm. 90-95% of the homes, buildings and infrastructure have been destroyed in the capitol city of Port Vila and on the outer islands. In these traditional village societies that survive via sustenance gardening and fishing, the gardens and fruit trees have been flattened. The hand-hewn wooden outrigger canoes used for fishing, and which take months to build, are splintered and sunk. Flimsy homes built of wood and coconut thatched roofs are completely gone. Entire villages are totally wiped out.
Fortunately the death toll is lower than expected, thanks to early warnings of the storm and survival skills honed over 5,000 years of living on these disaster prone islands. Rescuers are finding out now that self-sufficient villagers buried supplies of food, coconuts and water in advance of the storm. They took shelter in special triangular cyclone huts built specifically to withstand cyclones, as well as in copra kilns or in the few concrete buildings shared within a community such as a school or a church.
I looked online for ways to donate to relief organizations trying to help out. New Zealand and Australia are the nations most active in coming to the aid of the ‘ni Vanuatu’ (people of Vanuatu), as the country is located about 1200 miles east and north of these two larger nations. But there are some American organizations pitching in as well; if you’d like to send some funds to help out, CNN has published a list of organizations accepting donations to fund relief efforts in Vanuatu at this link:
In the meanwhile, I thought I’d post a few photos from happier times as we cruised among the Vanuatu islands aboard AVATAR during her very first cruising season in 2010. Below are the ladies of William’s Bay on the island of Erromango, proud of the feast that was days in the making, to be shared with a visiting group of missionaries from Samoa. The event was a peace offering in apology for the murder and ritual cannibalization of two early missionaries that took place in 1839!
The village chief sent us a formal written invitation to join the villagers and their visitors for an evening of feasting, music and dancing at the community building and grounds. Our ‘hostess gift’ was some petrol to help fuel the community generator which was needed to power the lights and music for the party. Rod was also drafted for some diagnostic support to troubleshoot said generator.
Fishing and small local gardens are the main source of food for the rural villages on the outer islands, as well as free range chickens and pigs, and the occasional cow. Here the men are netting fish from the beach at sunset. Presumably the beautiful coral reefs surrounding these islands have also been ravaged by the force of the hurricane surge.
In Erromango we were given a tour of the burial caves, high up on cliffs facing the ocean, that contained the bones of the ancestors. The fierce cyclones jumble the skeletons but the villagers return to tidy things up and pay their respects.
The women do their laundry in the river, downstream from where the village obtains its drinking water.
It takes months to carve these outrigger canoes from trees on the islands. They are important for transportation as well as fishing. Presumably most have been destroyed by the hurricane. This is Tom from Havana Bay, a low lying rural area not far from the capitol city of Port Vila.
I took a walk on the island of Efate one hot afternoon and met a local man who invited me for a drink from a green coconut and a tour of his extensive gardens. He sent me home laden with so many gifts of fruit and vegetables from his garden, including a watermelon, that I could barely stagger back to the boat.
The island of Tanna was also in the direct path of Hurricane Pam, with reports of 95% total destruction. Tanna is the home of Mt. Yasur, one of the world’s most accessible active volcanoes. We had a highly memorable evening climbing to the edge of the caldera at twilight to see, and photograph, the fireworks.
Click on any image below for a full-screen slideshow.