Contentment through Disaster: Surviving Cyclone Pam
On the evening of March 13, 2015, Cyclone Pam, a Category 5 event with winds reaching 165 mph, battered the Southwest Pacific island chain of Vanuatu. This country of 240,000 people, one of the poorest in the Pacific Basin, suffered immense damage.
Fortunately, a well–designed national warning system and evacuation plan kept the death toll low. However, the devastation to the livelihoods of so many people was profound and will be long lasting.
In the capital of Port Vila, the storm blew away roofs, toppled walls, beached boats, and uprooted and stripped trees.
By some accounts, 90 percent of the crops were wiped out. The worst damage was seen in the southern provinces, particularly on the islands of Tanna, Anatom, and Erromango. Efate, the island on which the capital of Port Vila lies, was also hit hard.
Within a week, Salvation Army personnel were on the ground with other agencies, such as World Vision, Save the Children, the Adventist Development and Relief Agency International (ADRA), and Samaritan’s Purse. I came from the USA Eastern Territory and joined Majors Brad Watson and Darren Elsley, two officers from the Australia Eastern and Australia Southern Territories, respectively.
Damaris Frick from the International Emergency Service Office at International Headquarters and Craig Arnold and Mike Shiffler, international deployment volunteers, arrived shortly after the disaster.
Craig Finnigan, from the Greater New York Emergency Disaster Services office, also joined the team.
Immediate assessments identified the greatest need on the islands of Tanna and Anatom. Projects were established to help fund relief work.
Arnold and Shiffler focused on three remote villages on Tanna. They provided five tons of food and restored drinkable water through the purchase and installation of three miles of piping. The logistical problem of transporting these items has been immense.
With the help of a French military helicopter, supplies were delivered directly to this remote area, bypassing washed out roads. As the response turned to recovery, rebuilding some 200 homes on Tanna became the goal.
Elsley focused on Anatom, where a high school sustained extensive damage. Providing food, seedlings, and other items greatly helped students and their families.
Transportation was a challenge. The availability of small charter planes was at a premium. Undamaged transport boats offered limited space. With increased demand but fewer options, prices were high.
I focused on the “21 Jump Street” community in Port Vila. Most dwellings in this community are flimsy huts made of corrugated iron. An assessment of the 130 families in the community revealed a tragic loss of possessions and income.
A small river turned into a raging torrent and swept away homes, destroyed vegetable gardens, and flooded dwellings. The lack of clean water caused sickness rates to soar. The Army’s response focused on providing water, seedlings, hygiene packs, and help with reconstruction.
Brad Watson, the team leader, was instrumental in coordinating with the National Disaster Management Office, and he attended daily cluster meetings to ensure the Army’s work was being effective.
The Army’s work will continue in Vanuatu. Donations from around the world are helping long–term recovery projects. The devastation is immense, but the resolve of the Ni–Vanuatu people is strong.
Army’s beginnings in Vanuatu
The Salvation Army became a known entity just four years ago in Vanuatu. On Efate Island, the Army has a fledgling work in the small community of “21 Jump Street,” a collection of ramshackle corrugated iron dwellings housing some 130 families. Several houses are positioned around a central yard and 21 adjoining yards, which give the community its name.
William and Lilly Rose Sarilobani live in one of these yards. Each weekday morning and on Sundays, they invite children and adults in to sing worship songs, pray, and learn from the Bible. William is a minibus driver and Lilly Rose and other family members make handicrafts for sale to cruise ship tourists. The Sarilobanis share what little they have with neighbors.
Lilly Rose also visits prisoners. When the need for Bibles in the prison became evident, she purchased them with money she made from selling food on the roadside—prepared from produce grown in her garden.
One evening while watching TV, the Sarilobanis saw a documentary on the Salvation Army’s worldwide ministry. Lilly Rose realized that she and William were already Salvationists at heart! Around the same time, Ian and Marion Dooley, Salvationists from the Tweed Heads Corps in Australia, had come to assist the poor they had encountered on a previous vacation to Vanuatu.
A friend introduced the Dooleys to Lilly Rose during one of her prison visits. Lilly Rose finally met someone from The Salvation Army! Before long, the Dooleys; Major Darren Elsley, corps officer of the Tweeds Heads Corps; and a few other Salvationists helped to establish a small outpost in Lilly Rose’s yard where they constructed a meeting shelter.
So far, 3 soldiers and 16 junior soldiers have been enrolled and several more are ready to take classes. Even Chief Donald, leader of the community, occasionally attends the worship where one of his grandchildren is a junior soldier.
Although the cyclone flattened William and Lilly Rose’s home and tore off the meeting shelter’s roof, they repaired the damage and continued their ministry.
Today, with such dire need in the community of 21 Jump Street, people turn to the Sarilobanis for assistance.
The most important thing Lilly Rose and William offer is encouragement—news that all is not lost. There is hope.
shelter after the storm
In August, The Salvation Army completed the construction of its first shelter on Vanuatu as part of an ongoing effort to rebuild. On Tanna Island, three remote villages will each receive 15 shelters. The Army is working in partnership with Liberty for the Nations, a Christian relief agency that has been on the island since the early 1990s. “It was great to see the first shelter built,” said Captain Dale Murray from the Australia Eastern Territory. “This project has been a team effort with a number of logistical challenges due to the remoteness of Tanna Island and the three villages.” The construction of more shelters is planned for other areas of Vanuatu.
The Ni–Vanuatu people understand and live out what Paul revealed to the Philippians: “… I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation … I can do all this through Him who gives me strength.” (4:12–13 NIV)
by Alastair Bate