Cyclone Harold's destruction on the West Coast of Santo. Photo: Christopher Bartlett.

Tropical Cyclone Harold devastated Vanuatu’s largest island Espiritu Santo. Two weeks on, communities on its west coast remain cut off. Teuila Fuatai reports.

About 1000 people on the west coast of Espiritu Santo are running out of food and water and have minimal shelter.

The mix of coastal and inland village communities, among the most remote in Vanuatu, felt the full force of the category five storm when it hit on April 6. Two weeks on, relief to the group of about 15 villages has been minimal – with transport problems, roads destroyed and restrictions from Covid-19 contributing to delays.

On Friday, the plight of the cut-off communities was raised again in government discussions, and supplies via ship and helicopter have been promised for early this week.

“We estimated that 600 homes and sleeping houses were completely demolished and all the rest were severely damaged,” says Dr Christopher Bartlett, a climate change scientist working on Santo when Harold hit. Bartlett was part of the Vanuatu Government’s damage assessment team for the west coast area in the immediate aftermath of the storm.

Nearly all crops, used as primary sources of food and income, have been destroyed. Water systems and tanks, which provide villages with clean water, have also been damaged. The main road to the area has also been washed out and boats on the island have no fuel, which means all relief deliveries are coming from the capital Port Vila.

“We’re all pretty much stuck here and the damage is severe – up to 80 to 90 percent of all the structures have been completely blown away,” Bartlett says.

“Any food gardens and crops have been decimated. We’re looking at a real humanitarian disaster at the moment, and trying to pull together what we can with local resources and traditional knowledge to pull us through these days while waiting for relief to come.”

 Scattered remains: Santo’s West Coast and Cyclone Harold. Photo: Christopher Bartlett.

To cope, people have foraged what was left of gardens and root crops for food. Rivers and creeks have been used as water sources, but contamination from livestock which has escaped in the storm has become a problem.

More recently, diarrhoea outbreaks have occurred.

“Around 1000 people may not sound like a lot, but it’s quite large-scale – it’s an entire side of an island that’s been affected,” Bartlett says.

“People live here almost exclusively in bamboo houses with palm-thatched rooves, and daily life is very much focused on agriculture. The biggest crops here would be the coconut, which is sold for oil making, and also things like cacao for chocolate and kava for the drink.

“All of that’s wiped out. What we really have to do is make sure that people have a place they can sleep that’s dry and safe. The young men in the villages have been lashing together small structures and everybody’s squeezing everything, and themselves into them.

“We’re also pooling the food that’s available. It’s those basic needs – keeping people dry and safe with whatever there is to eat and share. Particularly those disabled and vulnerable groups, who can’t necessarily do that on their own. They’re really depending on the entire community to help them.”

Bartlett, who is normally based in Port Vila, says locals had never experienced a storm like Harold – despite their home’s disaster-prone location. The wait for relief had been frustrating, and has been exacerbated by the now-lifted Covid-19 domestic travel restrictions, he said.

The longer-term resources needed for rebuilding have raised separate concerns in the storm’s aftermath.

“[Residents] are talking about cyclones in the past. They’re talking about how they have traditional coping mechanisms and how they’re able to think about cyclones, but this is something that has superseded all of their experience and all of their local capacity to cope.

“There’s no more income to pay for things like buying food or buying shelter to repair houses in a proper way. There isn’t even any more palm leaf left, and there probably won’t be for two or three years because it takes that long to grow. And that’s what’s used to thatch houses.

“People here, on-the-ground, are really seeing this as a part of climate change,” Bartlett says.

 International aid supplies arrive in Vanuatu. Photo: Vanuatu National Disaster Management Office.

As well as Santo, the islands of Pentecost and Ambae have been extensively damaged. The storm has drawn comparisons to 2015’s Cyclone Pam, which devastated the southern part of the Vanuatu archipelago, including its capital Port Vila. So far, three fatalities have been confirmed and at least half of Vanuatu’s 280,000 residents have been directly affected.

Several aid agencies and government departments are working on the Harold relief response, according to Kendra Derousseau, World Vision Vanuatu director. There were aid deliveries in south Santo on Friday, she added, although access to the western side of the island remained an issue.

“Logistics continue to be a problem because there aren’t really any roads, so boat and helicopter options are currently being organised.”

Damage to the country’s inter-island ferry fleet from Harold has delayed the relief response, as well as strict Covid-19 quarantine measures around international aid supplies, she says.

While no cases of the virus have been identified in the country, Derousseau and Bartlett both agree that quarantine measures need to remain in place, as Vanuatu has no capability to deal with an outbreak of Covid-19.

Overseas aid personnel are still not permitted into Vanuatu as part of the response to Harold, but a number of countries have contributed to relief efforts, including Australia and New Zealand. The UN has also made US$2.5 million available in emergency humanitarian funding.

* Made with the support of NZ on Air *

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