Mar 19, 2015 9:34 AM

Run, build, stay: How islanders survived Vanuatu's cyclone

The Associated Press

TANNA ISLAND, Vanuatu (AP) When her roof started collapsing during the cyclone, Christine Iakangem felt she had no choice but to grab her 1-week-old baby Angeline and start running.

On another part of the island, Kelson Hosea and his family crammed themselves into a shelter that he had just finished building.

Not far from him, village chief Philip Kasamu gathered his people into a cyclone-proof hut while wondering if their bickering had provoked nature's wrath.

Tanna Island in the southern part of the Vanuatu archipelago was one of the hardest hit when Cyclone Pam tore through the South Pacific nation early Saturday. The cyclone's 270 kilometer (168 mile) per hour winds pummeled lush tropical forests on Tanna into a brown jumble of broken trunks and strewn branches.

Among the island's 30,000 residents, however, there were just five confirmed deaths, a testament to their experience in dealing with cyclones as well as some narrow escapes.

Tanna is a place that civilization has only lightly touched. Dirt roads from the airport lead past small stores and women washing clothes in the ocean. Inland, many of the Melanesian people live as they have for generations, in wooden huts with roofs thatched with coconut leaves.

They tend to small plots of vegetables while pigs and chickens run free. On the east side of the island, the mighty volcano Yasur belches and booms throughout the otherwise still night.

Iakangem said she was terrified as the cyclone began tearing her hut apart, and she decided she needed to get out. She thought the best place to go would be an old store made from concrete, but knew it was about 2 kilometers (1.25 miles) away, a formidable distance in the dark and through the vicious winds.

"It was the only safe place, there was no other place," she said.

And so she picked up her tiny baby, covered her in blankets, and ran. She said she needed to stop often, as coconuts and pieces of debris flew about. But eventually she made it.

Patrick George and his wife Suzanne Job were also in their hut that night when a tree branch came crashing through their thatch roof. So they ran with their 2-year-old daughter Sondrine and their 6-month-old baby George to the school nearby.

George said his terrified son covered his head with a blanket so he couldn't see what was happening.

"I was very worried about my kids," he said.

The winds tore part of the school's roof off but they all made it through the night.

Not everybody survived. Iakangem said a close relative was leaving her home when she was struck and killed by a piece of flying roofing iron. She said the woman's son tried to help her when he, too, was killed by a piece of wood hurled by the wind.

The island has been hit before by big cyclones, including Cyclone Uma in 1987. In the villages, people traditionally built special structures to survive. Unlike the square-shaped open-air huts that people live in most of the time, the cyclone huts are triangular with solid walls to the ground, similar to an A-framed house.

It was into one of these huts that Chief Kasamu gathered many of his villagers on Friday as the winds began to gain strength. He said the storm made him feel like he had no power, and came as a signal that his people needed to get along better. He said next time he would be better prepared to fight the winds by following ancient traditions with a special type of leaf he said would help create a counter-wind.

Hosea, who lives down the valley from the chief, is much more connected to the modern world. The owner of the Jungle Oasis, he built nine bungalows and one tree house for adventurous tourists who travel from Europe and Australia to visit the volcano, one of the most accessible in the world.

He said he been calling and checking on the weather and knew the cyclone was coming. And so for two days he worked hard building his own small, triangular cyclone-proof hut. He finished it on Friday, and that night squeezed in with his wife, daughter and four other relatives.

He said such huts were used by his great-great grandfather's generation, but the knowledge of them is being lost on a younger generation. When the cyclone hit, he said, it sounded like a bulldozer smashing through the trees. But his family was safe inside the new hut.

"It's very tough, very strong," he said. "It didn't move."

When they ventured out, Hosea found his house was badly damaged, as were some of his bungalows, and his treehouse was a wreck. But what really surprised him was that looking out into the distance, for the first time, he could see the volcano. All the trees that once blocked the view were gone.

Now that the winds have passed, people on Tanna are worried about how they are going to survive.

Food and water are a big problem on Tanna and other islands; UNICEF estimates that nearly 5,000 people across Vanuatu have no access to drinking water. The cyclone broke Tanna's water pipes and decimated vegetable patches. Around the volcano, people say the problems are compounded by the volcanic ash which the winds spread everywhere and which they say kills the plants.

Iakangem and her baby remain with dozens of others in the concrete store, with little to eat. Aid is being distributed to the island, but she says that while she met one aid worker assessing needs, she has yet to be given food.

Others are slowly piecing their lives back together. With no functioning kitchen, Hosea set to work building another open-air hut, using bits of old wood and tin. He finished the project in a day, and can now eat there, the volcano looming above.


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