Cyclone Pam was a Category 5 storm whose 280 km/h winds caused massive devastation in Vanuatu. I departed Vanuatu a few days before the storm for Tonga—after having completed preparation of an emergency project to address issues at Bauerfield International Airport in Port Vila—where I was working on a project rebuilding Ha’apai after last year’s Cyclone Ian. From there I was travelling to Tuvalu which, since being outside of the ‘cyclone belt’ I did not expect to be affected much by the storm. My Tuvaluan friends say that cyclones are created in the waters of Tuvalu but are a gift to their neighbours. This time they were unfortunately wrong. So my planned mission to review the aviation project turned into a post-disaster ‘Damage and Loss Assessment’ (DALA) mission which would help identify potential support for the World Bank after the disaster.
For those who are unfamiliar with Tuvalu—i.e. almost the entire world’s population—it is one of the smallest nations in the world with a Polynesian population of some 10,000. About half live on the main atoll of Funafuti, with the others scattered over nine small islands south of the equator hundreds of kilometres apart. These atolls are about 2-3 metres above sea level and very susceptible to major storms.
Tuvalu was fortunate that the cyclone itself did not directly impact the country, but at the edge of such a monster storm they suffered from strong winds and tide surges. This led to substantial damages in the northern islands, as well as the central islands. There is likely some damages in the southern islands, but they do not know yet.
So what happened in the storm? Let me share some photos that we have been provided from those in the field.
The photos below show of the height of the waves. The pole is at the top of a concrete wharf which at normal high tide would probably be over one metre above the water.
Here you an get a glimpse of the wave height relative to the ground level.
Even afterwards there were amazing waves rolling in.
The energy of the waves was incredible and they basically dumped a huge amount of coral and debris on shore.
Of course during the storm there was flooding. And a lot of it. Some islands had waves washing entirely across them.
There was also damage to housing and infrastructure, especially if it was close to the ocean where the monster waves just trashed everything.
One unexpected consequence of the storm was the impact on graves. Due to the high water table it is common to bury people in above ground graves, and the graveyards are often near the ocean. These were trashed by the waves and bodies were uncovered, some deceased for only a few months. I won’t include the photos but some were quite macabre. We actually asked the WHO what the dangers were from these unearthed bodies and the initial answer was that as long as it wasn’t cholera and they were a few months old not to worry. We are checking on that …
Early reports suggested that some 45% of the people in the country were displaced. What is fortunate is that these were temporary and there have been only a small number of households who have lost their homes. But there have been major damages to coastal protection, sanitation systems, and the food crops. Remember, that is not fresh water but salt water. Some islands are reported to have lost 80-100% of their food supplies.
The remoteness of Tuvalu is making the relief and recovery effort a challenge. It has not been possible to get any details from the northern islands. Samoa kindly sent a patrol vessel to Tuvalu which took a team up there on Thursday. The trip from Samoa was so rough that two of the sailors had to be hospitalized on arrival. We’ve had monster winds and waves since they departed so will be interesting to hear how the trip went. Even though they are returning tonight they cannot dock due to the weather.
But in spite of the challenges, the relief effort is underway, and I’ll write about that in Part 2.