PORT VILA, Vanuatu — Vanuatu, a southern Pacific island nation about 1,100 miles east of northern Australia, was hit by a Category 5 cyclone on March 13 and 14. About 90 percent of the buildings, many of them modern homes and businesses, were destroyed in the capital, Port Vila.
Yet, traditional huts built from nature’s materials found in the forest survived in the hardest hit islands. And while modern technology to warn islanders was not available, village chiefs using ancient knowledge predicted this cyclone.
Tanna, one of the hardest hit islands in the eye of the storm for hours, had a low death toll due to the traditional huts. These dwellings, called Nimafiaks, are made out of bamboo, palm fronds, branches and vines. It is their construction that makes them so resilient.
Strong 165-mile-an-hour storm winds pass over them because they have roofs that slope to the ground, making them extremely low-lying and safe.
Tall, modern buildings, on the other hand, have roofs made of tin that can be easily lifted by cyclones, triggering more harm to the building and its inhabitants. The tin sheeting causes further damage as it is blown around in the storm gusts.
Fifteen people were saved as they huddled into Charlie Kalah’s Nimafiak. He said, “We made space for the elders, just held hands and some of us also prayed for collective safety.”
Village chiefs on the islands of Malicula and Ambrym also utilized traditional methods of predicting oncoming cyclones. The elders had reported signs of cyclones to the National Disaster Management Office according to Philip Meto, an NDMO provincial liaison officer in Port Vila.
Danny Edwin, a 102-year old resident of Ambrym, reported two signs. One was the sight of sea-dwelling birds flying inland from the sea, which only happens before a cyclone. “What is mysterious is that we don’t know where they sleep when they make a round from the ocean to the hills,” he said.
“We see them right before the cyclone and during the cyclone. Once it’s over, they just disappear.” The other sign was the sight of trees yielding unusually large amounts of fruit. Ancient knowledge also warned of an oncoming drought. Village chiefs reported spots on the roots of the yam crop, which signal a lack of water.
Half of the 260,000 residents were affected, including 60,000 children. Sixty-five of the more than 80 islands that stretch along 800 miles were seriously distressed with no telecommunication and accessibility limited to boat or helicopter.
President Baldwin Lonsdale declared Pam to be a “monster.” He said the storm destroyed all recent development, and the country would have to rebuild “everything.”
Government authorities also recognize the need to blend traditional methods with modern technology to aid Vanuatu in the future. They are planning eight powerful radio antennae in the most vulnerable areas. They intend to broadcast preparedness information before storms as well as information regarding community needs during a disaster.
Vanuatu holds the top position in a list of 173 countries that are most vulnerable to natural disaster, according to the World Risk Index. It is also one of the poorest countries in the world. This combination of high disaster risk and extreme poverty is a double threat.
The tiny island nation has survived a wide range of natural disasters besides cyclones, such as earthquakes and volcanoes, for 3,000 years. However, Alice Clements, a spokesperson for the U.N. Children’s Fund, said, “People have great coping mechanisms, but this was a category 5 storm.”
Pam is the second Category 5 cyclone in history to make landfall on a populated island in the waters east of Australia — and most likely Vanuatu’s worst. There are 10 category 5 storms on record in the same area. Category 5 is the severest, most destructive of all storms.
Residents have repeatedly reported devastating effects from climate change. The coastal areas are being washed away, and residents have been resettling on higher ground. This results in smaller yields of traditional crops in a nation where the primary economic activity is subsistence agriculture.
With all these conditions and El Nino in the start of a two-year cycle expected to be worse than prior cycles, Vanuatu could use an extra measure of help. The International Red Cross and Red Crescent, along with the Ministry of Public Works are promoting the “build back better” philosophy.
This sustainable approach to disaster relief reduction includes the Nimafiak in Vanuatu. Xavier Genot of IFRC said, “We can learn from traditional knowledge principles that could inform modern building and settlement practices and even be integrated into the national building code.”
The director of the NDMO, Shadrack Welegtabit, said that in order for Vanuatu to be able to rely on itself and not depend excessively on international support, the government and aid groups need to balance outside assistance with traditional methods of self-reliance.
– Janet Quinn