Island faith: An Easter like no other

Cyclone Harold tore through Vanuatu, Fiji and Tonga in one of the most significant weeks in the Christian calendar. The response, alongside Covid-19, is just beginning. Teuila Fuatai reports.

Reports of destruction from Tropical Cyclone Harold were still pouring into Port Vila, Suva and Nuku’alofa on Good Friday.

The cyclone’s rampage initially began to the north of Vanuatu when a packed passenger ferry from the Solomon Islands’ capital Honiara hit rough seas last week. Twenty-seven people were swept overboard and an ongoing recovery mission is underway.

The cyclone then tracked south-east, intensifying to a category five as it hit the northern islands of Vanuatu on Monday and Tuesday. The country’s second-largest island, Espiritu Santo – as well as Malo and Aore – were dealt the full force of winds of more than 230 kmh, lashing rain and coastal swells. While Vanuatu’s southern centres, including Port Vila, were spared, ongoing reports indicate severe damage to the homes and livelihoods of at least half of the country’s 280,000 residents and at least two fatalities.

By Wednesday, Harold turned to Fiji. Weather maps initially indicated the cyclone would skirt south-west of the country at a less intense force than in Vanuatu. However, throughout the day heavy rain and high winds pummelled the southern island of Kadavu. An initial aerial assessment estimated 60 percent of the island destroyed. The main island of Viti Levu – which has 16 cases of Covid-19 – was also hit. Evacuation centres provided shelter for at least 6000 people as gale-force winds, flooding, rolling power outages and disrupted water supplies caused problems. While no deaths were reported, 23 people were injured.

Next, it was Tonga. The cyclone passed to the south of its capital Nuku’alofa on Thursday and coincided with a king tide. Extreme winds and heavy rain destroyed buildings and homes on the island of ‘Eua. Affected residents took shelter in evacuation centres. On the main island of Tongatapu, several resorts on the western coast were flattened. Many coastal areas were also inundated by the high tide, and Nuku’alofa was flooded.

Easter Weekend clean-up in aftermath of Cyclone Harold in Tonga. Photo: Tonga Red Cross.

The trail of destruction has marked a dark beginning to Easter across the three Pacific nations – which were already in crisis-mode for Covid-19.

Vanuatu, which is yet to identify any virus cases, has been explicit about tailoring its cyclone response to Covid-19 health measures. With no intensive care units, the country’s health services are not equipped to deal with any severe Covid-19 cases and an outbreak would likely be catastrophic.

Kendra Derousseau, World Vision Vanuatu national director, flew to Santo’s main centre of Luganville on Wednesday. She described the damage as worse than 2015’s Cyclone Pam and reiterated the need for Vanuatu to coordinate its responses to Harold and Covid-19.

“I have 22 staff members at the World Vision office in Luganville and eight of them have lost everything and the rest have sustained significant damage to their property,” Derousseau said.

“I was in Vanuatu in 2015 when Tropical Cyclone Pam ripped through Port Vila and the southern islands. The damage I saw from TC Harold was worse – it reminds me very much of tornado damage, where things are torn to pieces than being windblown.”

Vanuatu's response to Cyclone Harold underway. Photo: Vanuatu Red Cross

Derousseau supported the Government’s decision to keep borders closed to international humanitarian personnel because of the threat of Covid-19. She also touched on the challenges around Easter Weekend – traditionaly a time of family gatherings and church services for communities. Her advice followed that of the Government’s.

“It’s a very important holiday,” Derousseau said. “I have asked our staff not to attend any church services that are held indoors in confined spaces, but to be promoting, with pastors and churches, the possibility of holding outdoor services.

“The weather across the archipelago is supposed to be beautiful for the whole Easter Weekend, so that’s what we are promoting.”

In Fiji, radio and online church services have provided an important alternative to traditional Easter gatherings throughout the holy week. As families across the country continued to struggle with the aftermath of Harold over the weekend, authorities and community leaders were reiterating the importance of staying in touch with loved ones. In Suva, the Fiji Red Cross office remained fully staffed on Good Friday to assist with damage assessments and response efforts.

“We know there’s been extensive damage in Kadavu. One of our team members went to the island on a team response [on Thursday] – about 60 percent of the island has been destroyed – in a lot of places, the houses have been completely or partially destroyed,” Ilisapeci Rokotunidau, Fiji Red Cross national director general, said.

A comprehensive assessment of the eastern Lau Islands was still underway on Friday afternoon, she said. “That’s where Harold exited.”

Staff and volunteers would continue to work closely with government officials as they navigated the response to Harold alongside Covid-19, Rokotunidau said.

“For the Red Cross, you could almost call it ‘the new way’. We have had to really quickly rethink how our volunteers are working with their communities with these restrictions. They’re finding it very hard practically – the social distancing and not going to church, but it’s something that we have to live with now if we want to be safe.

Many would also miss the community worship of Easter church services – which had been banned under Covid-19 emergency laws. Radio and online services have been another learning-curve for Fiji amidst Harold and Covid-19, Rokotunidau said.

“Some people are finding it very interesting because it’s something we’re not used to. We’re a very social group,” she said.

In Tonga, local Red Cross officer Poli Kefu said in addition to the immediate cyclone response, staff were also preparing a fresh batch of Covid-19 packages for families. The country’s two-week lockdown is due to end on Easter Sunday, and travel and business restrictions are due to be relaxed. No Covid-19 cases have been identified in the country yet.

Tonga responds to Cyclone Harold: vegetable deliveries to homes in needs. Photo: Tonga Red Cross. 

“Our staff have been on standby for the last two weeks for Covid-19, and then since yesterday for Harold,” said Kefu this Friday.

“We will be deploying our volunteers [on Saturday] with stocks like soap and hand towels and other sanitary items, but in the morning we’ll be focusing on the assessment and response to Harold.”

* Made with the support of NZ on Air *

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