Picture Caption: Amongst the destruction of Cyclone Pam a man tries to salvage what is left of his house, whilst his son resiliently kicks a ball around.
As most of you know a category 5 cyclone called Cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu with devastating effect on the 13th of March. The cyclone formed east of the Solomon Islands on the 6th of March where it initially established itself as a category 3 cyclone. It intensified into a category 5 as it tracked down to Vanuatu. Cyclone Pam tracked down Vanuatu passing by the islands of Pentecost, Ambrym and Epi. It then passed just east of the Efate, the main island of Vanuatu, and where the capital of Port Vila is located. It then continued tracking down, passing the islands of Erromango and Tanna. Pam’s strength was at its peak as it was passing through Vanuatu with winds up to 270kmph, however some have estimated up to 320kmph. The storm only weakened after it passed through Vanuatu, before heading to New Zealand where minimal damage was done. To my knowledge, the death toll stands at 24. Ariel photos of Vanuatu show sheer devastation with an estimated 90% of buildings destroyed on some islands. Communications on the islands outside of Efate are for the most part “down”, making it very difficult to contact friends and family in the islands. This is exemplified by the fact that Vanuatu’s Prime Minister Baldwin Lonsdale was ironically in Japan for a disaster mitigation conference and had no contact with his family in the days after the crisis. He has since returned to Vanuatu. This lack of communication is true of most families who have relatives scattered amongst the islands. My family is also highly involved on the island of Tanna undertaking a collaborative tourist based business project with a community there. Unfortunately we have not heard from our friends up there since the cyclone. For regular updates on how the people of Tanna, and our more personal connections on the island, respond and recover from Cyclone Pam take a look at Vanuatu Traveller. This article has sparked my interest on the question of to what extent is media being used to warn populations of impending disasters? How do they fit in with other more social systems of warning? It also makes me ask the question of, how will the people of Vanuatu respond to this crisis?
The path of Cyclone Pam
Use of Media to Inform Populations about Disasters like Cyclone Pam
In anecdotal evidence from my family it seems as though that the people of Vanuatu could have been more prepared for the crisis. As Cyclone Pam approached Vanuatu calls were made to the families and villages we know to warn them of the crisis. Warnings to a family in the outer island of Tanna of what was approaching were taken light-heartedly. Only after repetition of the seriousness of the situation was it understood that more thorough preparation was in order. This included boarding up houses and moving their vehicle (used for tourist adventures) into a more protected area. We have not yet heard from this family and their village due to the breakdowns in communication. We have however heard from a family in Port Vila who have stated that do not have any food or water. This is to my family’s frustration as they were advised to stockpile some food and water and to find an ultra-secure place to store it. These efforts were not done. Again the seriousness of the situation was not understood. Perhaps it was because they believed Cyclone Pam would be just like every other Cyclone that has hit the area in the past. In these scenarios they have gotten by just fine. However it does prompt the question of how should the seriousness of impending disasters be expressed in the Pacific in order for people to take appropriate preventative measures?
The most common form of disaster warning comes from broadcast radio, however these warnings can be quite formal, prescriptive, and explained in non-relatable ways such as “category 5”. The mobile phone is increasingly been thought of a technology to provide warnings. In Samoa, Papua New Guinea, and Tonga emergency broadcasters have experimented with sending out SMSs to mobile users to warn them of cyclones. It should be noted however that mobile penetration in the islands is not 100%. In Vanuatu it is estimated at 76% however we could expect a larger percent in urban areas and on the main island, as opposed to rural areas in the outer islands. Furthermore telecommunication infrastructure can be patchy and unreliable. This means there needs to be other non-technical non-media related ways to provide warnings to areas that will be affected by disaster.
It is argued that warnings are provided to local populations through wider communicative ecologies. This refers to the how information flows throughout the community whether it be through media, AND personal or institutional interaction. It is proven that more contextualised reporting by trusted locals and institutions resonate most with other locals rather than westernised reporting. For instance, it is argued that in Tuvalu western based and media delivered information on climate change does not resonate with locals. Rather a more effective medium for delivering information on climate change has been through sermons provided by religious institutions. It is also not uncommon for taxi drivers to convey such disaster information that they have heard on the radio in more relatable contextualised language to local passengers. In Kiribati policemen drive around the islands to warn local populations about incoming cyclones. In Niue policemen are also involved by consulting with village council institutions who then warn those who they represent. The more face to face based warnings are taken more seriously than westernised reports.
It therefore seems to me that there needs to be a greater interconnection between these formalised warnings and the more interpersonal methods of providing warnings. The seriousness of impending disaster needs to be effectively transferred between the two methods.
Resilience after Cyclone Pam
Resilience is a term often used after a crisis to express the capability of communities to respond and recover to emergencies. Resilience can come in two forms such as reducing the vulnerability of communities to disaster so that the point of recovery is not so low that it cannot be returned from. It also comes in the form of the adaptability and systems of recovery after a disaster has hit. This is most thoroughly defined in the following definition of resilience.
The capacity of a system, community or society potentially exposed to hazards to adapt, by resisting or changing in order to reach and maintain an acceptable level of functioning and structure. This is determined by the degree to which the social system is capable of organising itself to increase the capacity for learning from past disasters for better future protection and to improve risk reduction measures (UNISDR 2005)
Currently it is not known how Vanuatu will respond to the crisis, however we do know that Pacific Island States do have strong social systems that promote co-operation, help, and communalism. This is most prominently expressed in social systems of kinship. Therefore there is hope that communities will come together, rebuild, and prosper once again. The track record of Pacific Island States to recover from cyclones is encouraging. In 1952 and 1953 the people of Tikopia in the Solomon Islands were hit by successive typhoons. The communities came together and agreed to make certain adjustments in their traditional ways of life to meet their daily needs. This included the temporary abandonment of fallow periods, redefinition of agricultural rights, stricter crime and thief repression, and also the adjournment of wedding ceremonies that require the exchange of vast quantities of wealth. These adjustments were agreed upon during public assemblies. As a result the Tikopia people were able to recover from the cyclones.
I believe the people of Vanuatu will resiliently respond in a similar manner, however it must be stated that this is perhaps the strongest cyclone to ever hit the region. The destruction was unprecedented. Therefore the people of Vanuatu need all the international help they can get to resiliently respond to Cyclone Pam. They need help in the short run with supplies of water, food, and medical supplies. But they will also need help in the long run. As Baldwin Lonsdale the prime minister of Vanuatu stated, they are going to need to rebuild the majority of the country. He wants to restore the country that he defines as a “paradise”. Please donate to the following charities (but be careful there are some fraudulent charities seeking to profit from the devastation in Vanuatu).
Thinking of our friends in Tanna, Vanuatu