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Cyclone Donna from the volunteer perspective

Published on 12th May 2017

Tropical Cyclone Donna left Vanuatu on May 9 after taking a long slow trajectory over the country. While full reports of the damage done, especially in the harder-hit northern regions, are yet to come in, our volunteers have already noticed the less obvious impacts cyclones can have.

Volunteers Don Hunter, Wendy Griffin and Stephen Soole sent their reports this week.


Don Hunter, Management Adviser, Vanuatu Kaljoral Senta:


TC Donna is moving off the Vanuatu archipelago towards New Caledonia. Despite media reports that only the Northern provinces suffering damage, this is far from reality.


The unreported damage is much more subtle. On Monday morning going through downtown Port Vila, the Mamma's Market, usually a hive of activity looked more like a scene from a Sunday afternoon. Almost all of the trestle tables, usually overflowing with an abundance of local produce were stacked and not in use. Why is this happening on what is usually the busiest time of the week at the market?


The subtle unreported side of cyclones is the devastating impact not caused by catastrophic winds but by the days of constant rain far from the reported damage centre. You see the ongoing rain, at times not particularly heavy, all but destroys leaf crops. The destruction is twofold: the rain causes initial mechanical damage to tender leaves and stems, this in turn gives entry points for fungal pathogens. The effect on flowering, pollination and fruit set is equally devastating.


TC Cook passed our way a few weeks back causing reasonably limited reported damage. However the Mamma's Market was devoid of leaf produce for a good ten days afterwards. When at last, with delight, I was able to buy a bunch of Bok Choy, I asked the woman serving me where it had come from. Her reply, Tanna Island. Tanna is a two-day boat trip from Port Vila.


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Emergency Operations teams met at Vanuatu's Ministry of Education and Training


Much of the damage from Cook and Donna will come later in the form of a limited diet, with infants, children and the elderly most affected. Last week I heard a media statement that the people of Vanuatu in rural communities are "resilient". That is good, I said to myself, as if they have a choice. Rural communities make up 80% of a total population of approximately 270, 000 people. You can do the maths on the unreported damage of TC Cook & TC Donna.


Of course the very real damage in the Northern provinces is not to be underestimated with the loss of gardens, bush food sources, reef food sources, water supplies, houses, medical clinics and supplies, schools, communications infrastructure and injuries.


Agencies such as VSA and the Red Cross will be working alongside many of the rural communities most affected by TC Cook and TC Donna. Those communities will work hard to re-establish their foothold on this fragile archipelago.


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Signage for Cyclone Emergency Operations meetings at the Ministry of Education


Wendy Griffin, Pre-school Assessment Adviser, Vanuatu Ministry of Education and Training:


On Monday, Donna became a Category 5 cyclone, so my colleague picked me up so we could join the Emergency Operations teams at the Ministry of Education and Training and help set things up for the Rapid Assessment collection of information. With all the donors present it was a big meeting. But this time we had things in place for education and it was only communication that was difficult.


By Tuesday our National Disaster Management Office was ready to send a Team to Torba, a province in the far North, which had been battered by Donna for four days. We are not very hopeful that the kindergartens on the Western side of the little Torres Islands would have survived but we will find out soon. You can see the Ministry of Education and Training boarded up in the photos.


The National Radio Station and the two telecoms companies here were fantastic at giving out messages verbally, plus text messages and we enjoyed putting our little crosses on the tracking map. It was one very strange cyclone pattern this time, but we are relieved it’s over.


We are mostly back to normal now, with things to repair, data to collect and plans to rebuild. Thanks to all that supported us through this, especially VSA staff in Santo.


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Windows boarded up at the Ministry of Education

Stephen Soole, Agricultural Association Adviser, Vanuatu Chamber of Commerce & Industries


The effects of Cyclone Donna, despite it not making landfall in Efate, are not only immediate, but long term. While something of an inconvenience for us living and volunteering here, for those who depend entirely on subsistence agriculture for their daily sustenance and well-being, for some 75-80% of the population it couldn’t have come at a worst time, with agriculture still very much in recovery mode from Cyclone Pam and its devastating force.


For those in the rural communities and outer islands, the most vulnerable and most affected, it’s again going to require strength for the sustained and determined energy now required to salvage something from what remains of their gardens and livelihood.


While walking to work today, I noticed many more potholes in the road now and widespread flooding. These infrastructure issues are minor in nature, they can and will be repaired and rebuilt, and while our thoughts and memories quickly fade of this event as the days and weeks pass, my heart goes out to the people, communities and families that now have the huge and tiresome task that time and physical exertion requires, just to get back on their feet and back to where they were before Donna arrived.


Kia Kaha.


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