Cyclone Ivy

[Amalgamated from a series of live blogging posts as Cyclone Ivy hit the village of Saratamata on Ambae island, where I was staying at the time.]

Imagine the worst storm you’ve ever seen. Double it. Double it again. Make it last 14 hours at its highest intensity. That’s how Typhoon Ivy was for us. The wind stayed consistently in excess of 50 knots from mid-afternoon of the day before yesterday (the time of my last post) until late into the night. It gusted far above that.

There were four of us staying in a very small house. We made light of things as best we could, but it was a little hard to be entirely glib when the door blew off the front of the house, taking the sheets of masonite covering the windows with it.

Three of us manhandled the door back into place, and while Mick (the biggest of the bunch) held it in place, John and I ran off into the storm to find the necessaries to keep it there. Some men were sheltering in the workshop adjoining the provincial offices, and they helped us find a hammer, some nails, and some 2×10 planks. We stood in the rain for about 10 minutes, nailing the planks and the masonite into place.

By the end of it, all of us were drenched to the skin, and stinging from the lashing rain.

I suppose we did as countless people have when faced with a phenomenon that can’t be altered. We made the best of it. All four of us are fairly good-natured people. We chatted by the meager light of a hurricane lantern, joking as best we could, making every effort not to flinch when something large hit the roof.

Late in the afternoon, I stepped out into the lee of the house to smoke a cigarette[*]. As I huddled by the edge of the building I watched two consecutive gusts of wind tear branches thicker than my waist from the mango tree beside me. What frightened me most was the fact that it happened so quickly. This was no Hollywood slo-mo, where the branch creaks ominously, giving the rescuer time to shout to the trapped child, put the asshole fire chief into his place but good, recant his recent infidelity to his new love, give her a passionate, lingering kiss, then race into the storm, leaping headlong to pull the frightened, sassy-no-longer child to safety. Nope. Gust. Crack. Boom. Five hundred pounds of lumber have just landed underfoot. It was hard not be be shaken.


[*] How far have we fallen into political correctness when a person voluntarily steps outside to smoke… in a hurricane? I imagine myself, decades from now, telling my grandchild how I once lit a cigarette in a hurricane with a single match. Later, the awe-struck child gathers his playground friends together and tells them, “My granpa smokes!


Several times I watched small groups of children go scrambling out into the melee, grabbing up windfallen fruit, then scurrying back for cover. A number of young men had been detailed to go walkabout during the storm, making sure that everything and everyone were safe. I spoke with them on the occasions where I walked over to the sheltered porch at the provincial offices to smoke a cigarette and watch the storm. We would sit and watch branches being ripped from trees, commenting on how good it was that the buildings were still standing.

Until the roof ripped off the nearest kava nakamal and flew onto the road 20 metres away. I took a photo of it, more pro forma than anything else, as the light was terrible, and the visibility low. The gouts of water pouring down in streams from the corrugated roof never hit the ground. The wind whipped them straight back upwards into the air. Rain was flying horizontally, crossing the fifty metre open space in front of the offices in less than a second.

The day transitioned from murky grey to truly dark. We prepared and ate supper by the light of the lamp, and cussed our luck afterward when we realised that everyone thought the other had brought playing cards. A neighbour had brought a ‘hurricane gift’ to the house – a strangely shaped bottle of Russian vodka with a whole ginseng root inside it. Mick solemnly inspected the Cyrillic characters on the label. He said, ‘Hmmm…. It says Chernobyl Fetus.’ We were ready to laugh at anything.

As the wind reached its peak, the house started leaking. The rain was being forced upwards under the eaves. The toilet and my bedroom each had about an inch of standing water in them, but aside from making sure nothing stayed on the floor, there was little we could do but stick cardboard in the windows and peer helplessly at the dripping ceiling by the light of a kerosene lamp.

Shortly before I finally turned in, I went outside for one last cigarette. Lightning flashes strobed the night at a fantastic rate. I was unnerved and frightened by the fact that I couldn’t hear the thunder. The wind and the ocean nearby drowned it out.

We stayed up later than usual, because between the basso profundo voice of the sea, the shrieking wind and the constant percussive impact of flying objects against the walls and the roof, nobody was going to sleep well. I practiced transference. As I lay in bed I found myself imagining where a drenched and confused centipede would be most likely to seek shelter and solace. I didn’t move a muscle.

By morning, the wind and the rain had subsided sufficiently to allow us to go outside. The four of us wandered out to assess the damage. Like many others, a tree had fallen within a foot of the house. A little closer and the thing would have taken out the corner of the building. Surprisingly – luckily – nobody’s home was severely damaged. One building made of local materials withstood a direct hit from a falling coconut palm. I was impressed, though on reflection not surprised, that three thousand years of living here had taught people a thing or two about construction methods. The tightly woven natangura thatching that they used actually fared better than many a corrugated tin roof.

We spent the morning trying to assess the damage. Saratamata is the de facto provincial capital, so it has some responsibility for communicating with the other islands and villages in the province, for reporting damage to the disaster management folks, and for expediting assistance where required. It would be nice if they could have done so, too. Someone had forgotten to lower the province’s teleradio antenna before the storm, however, and it had blown down in the wind. We could listen, but we could not transmit beyond line of site. If you’ve looked at the topography of the islands in this group, you’ll know how much that limited us. It’s all mountains.

The morning meeting, scheduled for 09:00, was delayed until 10:30 due to the difficulty of gathering people in one place. The acting Secretary-General hemmed and hawed for the few moments, then announced that we would all be detailed to cleaning up our own places first, then we would meet again in the afternoon to coordinate a road-clearing and damage assessment effort. Rank brooks no argument here, so everyone dutifully set about their work.

Mick, John and I all obtained bush knives from neighbours and started clearing the yard. My bush knife had a split handle and a very sharp blade. I was surprised at the ability of these knives to slice through a couple of inches of hardwood with a single swing. I was also impressed at the speed with which that handle raised blisters on my city-softened hands.

The work was drudgery, mostly, a matter of scrambling through the entangling mass of fallen branches, cutting away at them bit by bit in order to expose the trees that lay underneath. Anything that was too big to cut or move was left where it lay; the children helped us carried away the rest. We stacked the useful wood in the field in front of the provincial offices (putting it on public land makes it free for the taking), and left the detritus in a pile in front of the house.

That afternoon, we walked down to the Lolowai, a village about three kilometres away, in order to buy supplies and to see how things were with them. We clambered over four huge fallen trees blocking the road. The hospital is located in Lolowai. I guessed nobody was going there any time soon.

Lolowai is – was – one of the most picturesque places in Vanuatu. It’s a natural harbour hidden from the ocean by a volcanic headland rising several hundred feet straight into the air. Two jagged rocks, each with a single straggly tree atop it, protect the mouth of the harbour. Ashore, lava flows lead down to black sand beaches. The wind and water were still extremely rough, and spray was dashing over top of the fifty foot high protectors in the harbour mouth.

We turned to face inland. The prospect was a dismal one. The wind had funneled up the bay, and left the hillside above stripped of its greenery. Remember, this is tropical rain forest we’re talking about. Now, it looked like Ottawa after the ice storm, or Viet Nam after a visit from Agent Orange. The eye had passed to the other side of Ambae, so most of the trees had managed to stay standing. Every one, though, had lost all of its leaves and many of its branches.

As we were exiting the co-op with the small supplies we had managed to obtain, we were shocked to see the province’s truck pull up in front of us. Roger, the disaster coordinator, smiled and announced that he had done a long circuit ‘on top’ that is, well inland, and had followed the roads all the way around to Lolowai again. We gladly accepted his offer of a lift. To my surprise, he headed up the road we had come in on.

The drive went in stages. We caught up with a work crew from the hospital, clearing the road before them as they went. Our progress home consisted of driving a few hundred metres, climbing out and hauling away the massive logs and branches that the chainsaw crew had cut, and depositing everything on the roadside. My blisters had already opened, so their was nothing for it but to grin and bear the discomfort as we hauled the wood away.

Many hands make light work. In a surprisingly short time, we had cleared the last of the obstructions and drove the rest of the way back to Saratamata. Radio, telephone and power were still not working, so Mick and I teamed up to make a hacked-together Pad Thai, featuring Mick’s sauce derived from the back of a noodle packet, some local vegetables and large, meaty nuts reminiscent of firmer, dryer water chestnuts, dried shi’itake mushrooms and a tin of tuna in oil from the Solomons. Amazingly, it was really tasty. John dubbed it Pad Vanuatu.

That night, they finally got into the vodka. Which meant, of course, that we were doomed to talk politics. American politics, in deference to the host. Abby bowed out early, leaving the men to vie for the ‘Most Tendentious‘ medal.

Yesterday, John and I conspired to get the radio working again. The only technical problem was that the cable supporting the antenna had broken. The real challenge, however, consisted of convincing people that this was not a problem for someone else to fix, but that we could jury-rig a solution ourselves. This required that I pretend to be an expert in radio transmission technology. I looked that the fallen antenna, inspected the length of the cable, and announced that it would work fine if we just re-strung it. We recruited a young boy to climb the very spindly orange tree in which the suspension cables had become entangled, and after twenty minutes of very delicate footwork on his part, had the cable cleared and ready to be re-strung.

The radio antenna is hung more or less like an industrial strength clothes-line. It consists of two cables running parallel to one another from a three-metre pole in the back yard of the province to another fifteen-metre pole about thirty metres distant. Needless to say, the thing had snapped on the high side.

I considered how I would make the ascent. The pole was studded with removable foot- and handholds, but several of them had fallen out, and most of the others were locked in place by corrosion. I asked one of the provincial staff for a two metre length of nylon rope in order to create a makeshift climbing harness. He disappeared, returning a few minutes later with quarter-inch nylon twine. We chuckled ruefully and made do. I doubled the twine, then doubled it again, and tied the resulting loop around the pole with a double prussic knot. A prussic knot slips one way only, so each of the knots would push against the other, tightening the bond as weight was put on it. I climbed up two metres, and tested, then re-tested my harness. Finally satisfied that it would hold my weight, I climbed up.

I wasn’t too concerned about the climb, in spite of the missing steps. It’s a fairly easy thing to shinny up a pole, and it was something I’d done more than once in my mis-spent youth. The trouble would come when I needed both hands free to heft the thirty metres of steel cable to a proper height.

After a little to-ing and fro-ing in the breeze, I managed to get myself set. I fed the free end of the re-spliced cable down to the men on the ground, and relying on them to take up the slack, I began to tug. I put what weight I have against the harness and heaved for what I was worth. It was gratifying to watch the antenna rise slowly above the trees. With the assistance of a well-positioned cleft bamboo pole, we managed to lift the antenna higher than it had been before. Last I heard, they had managed to contact Mota Lava, an island a few hundred miles to the north in the Banks group, as well as the neighbouring islands of Maewo and Pentecost.

It feels good to earn one’s keep.

*****

The first plane arrived this morning in the middle of a moderate rain shower. Even as it touched down, though, the sun began to push through the clouds. I chose to take it as a sign. I’d been scheduled to go out today, but given that I haven’t completed even half the work I came to do, I’ve made arrangements to travel back to Vila on Wednesday.

As I sat here writing this last paragraph, a truck drove up outside the window and beeped at us. The driver made a few hand signs and asked for a thumbs-up. John deciphered the message and tried turning on the overhead fan. It began to spin. We have power again.

Come Monday, things should be more or less back to normal.

*****

Ivy’s path led it straight down the length of the Vanuatu archipelago. It hit every island south of Torba – the northernmost – province. Port Vila was directly in the eye, as was the tiny island of Erromango, where we’ve been told there’s been at least one death. News is still very spotty, however.

Ivy’s current position is well south of Vanuatu. Having missed New Caledonia completely, it’s only really a danger to ships now. The average winds in a fifty kilometre radius is 110 knots, with gusts to 150. There are doubtless some in peril on the sea.

*****

Everyone’s taking the damage in stride, making light of it when we can, but the thing that makes us nervous is that every single garden in this area[*] has been flattened. Yesterday one man observed that it will be a year before anyone tastes banana again. Mango trees suffered greatly, being brittle, high-standing things. Pamplemousse and orange trees fared poorly as well. A woman on the road yesterday observed, ‘Bambae i gat plenti man we i hongri.’

[*] Having looked at Ivy’s route, we can assume the same for almost everyone on Vanuatu.

John, my host here in Saratamata, works for the Rural Economic Development Program. The sign outside his building reads ‘REDI five year development program’. It lies at an odd angle now, and is spattered with mud and fallen leaves. As we passed it this morning, John shook his head and said, “‘Five’? Make that ‘seven'”.

Posted: February 28th, 2004
Categories: journamalism
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