My Island Home: the first week after Cyclone Pam

Written by Tess Newton Cain

Usually the phrase ‘coming home’ signifies a return to all that is familiar and predictable. On Monday I came home to something that is far from familiar and to a situation characterised by frenzied activity, heightened awareness and rapid-fire exchanges of information and decision-making.

Nothing looks the same. Where once there was green, now there is brown. The wholesale destruction of vegetation has revealed buildings that were previously surrounded by bush. Landmarks that were present this time last week have gone. This does nothing to assist my already very flaky sense of topography. Nothing sounds the same. Usually when I write in my lagoon-side office, I hear birdsong, occasional barking from dogs and maybe the voices of people going past on canoes or kayaks. Now I work with the sound of chainsaws and bush knives in the background interspersed with the sound of military and civilian aircraft criss-crossing the skies.

Vanuatu has experienced cyclones before and will undoubtedly experience them again. Cyclone Pam is significant in terms of her impact both in breadth and depth. Initial assessments are still being conducted but preliminary information is that all of the occupied islands of the country have been affected, with the possible exception of Malakula. Reports from aerial assessments undertaken during the past couple of days are indicating extensive damage, especially in the southern part of the country, affecting buildings, airstrips and gardens. This last is of particular concern in terms of longer-term food security as over 70% of the population relies on subsistence farming. For now people will eat what can be salvaged from the storm. Some will have livestock that they can kill. I just read that in Middle Bush, Tanna, where all are safe (largely thanks to having endured the cyclone in daylight hours), people are making use of solar powered driers to convert manioc into flour before it rots. That will be a much valued resource in the weeks and months to come.

Those of you who have visited Vanuatu (and certainly if you have visited me) will know that drinking kava at the end of the working day is an important activity for a sizeable segment of the community. We get to sit outside, chat quietly, do some networking and drink the most foul tasting substance you would ever voluntarily put in your mouth – it is a mild soporific that produces effects such as numbed lips and general relaxation. I had expected that kava bars would be either non-operational or out of stock (most of the kava sold in Port Vila comes from other islands such as Pentecost, Ambrym or Ambae). Never have I been so pleased to be proved wrong. I spent Monday evening with some friends at one of my favourite kava bars. The two wooden huts where kava and food are sold are intact but the rest of the place is trashed. This kava bar was burned to the ground in October 2012 and only reopened late last year. The owners (who I have known for 18 years) told me – “last time we waited two years to start selling the kava again but this time we waited two days”. They were doing a roaring trade, lots of it being sold as ‘plastics’ (recycled drink bottles filled with kava for take-away). But there was enough for those of us who were there to enjoy a couple of shells in the peace and quiet.

I’ve been asked “How can Vanuatu recover?”, and the answer I have given is: we are recovering. This is a resilient country populated by resourceful people and we are working together to get things back on track. There are many challenges ahead: logistical, political, economic and social. There is need for much assistance and we know it is on its way. When it gets here, it will find us already working hard in our island home.

Tess Newton Cain (@CainTess) is a Visiting Fellow at the Development Policy Centre.

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Tess Newton Cain

Dr Tess Newton Cain is the principal of TNC Pacific Consulting and is an adjunct Associate Professor at the Griffith Asia Institute. She has been an Associate of the Development Policy Centre since 2012.


  • As a friend of Vanuatu over many years, I would like to support and echo your comments about resilience and community capacity to respond. Collectivism is a very deeply held value in Vanuatu (albeit sometimes tested in urban settings) and this enables people to share available resources and support each other in challenging times. It is inspiring to see that the thoughtful disaster preparedness plans made by Vanuatu communities and organisations, albeit highly tested by Pam’s impact, are being applied in practice across the country. It is also good to hear hints of humility and respect for local leadership being shown by external contributors to Vanuatu’s recovery, in this context, although it strikes me there is always room for more of this. There is clearly space for external support in the critical stages after an event such as Cyclone Pam: lessons learned from other disasters confirm the critical importance of supporting local leadership and other institutional and community capacity rather than supplanting it, even in the early stages. While material resources may well be appropriate in many cases, local networks, leadership and collectivist behaviour can also make big contributions to recovery in the longer term. For external contributors, it will be important to maintain (and perhaps temporarily boost, if requested) existing long-term partnerships, development programs and business-as-usual arrangements during the recovery process, despite the short-term challenges. It will also be strategically important for external players to consider what they can do to help prevent the recurrence of such major weather events which may be an effect of human-caused climate change!

    • Thanks for your comments Deborah (I found them!). I have been collecting together some various thoughts about how best Vanuatu can be supported as we move from relief into recovery and rebuilding. You will find them here: and I would invite you and others to contribute by way of comment and content to what I hope will be a forum where meaningful, practical and appropriate ideas can be canvassed and developed so that they are available to policy makers whether within Vanuatu or elsewhere.

  • Dear Tess, thank you for this wonderful representation of local resilience. The research repeatedly shows local responses as critical and usually overlooked post-disaster. The question for international responders is: “how can we support local capacity, how can we build on what they know, how can we learn from them”. As a small child growing up in Vanuatu and enduring many cyclones, I saw this again and again – communities rebuild, even from apparently nothing. You sound chipper, and I know there is a lot of more to be done and to process yet. A big hug. xx

    • Thanks Marianne, there is indeed a big job ahead but I am advised that the way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. If and when I get 10 uninterrupted minutes I will try to put down on paper some further thinking on the issue of resilience as it manifests itself in many forms.

  • Tess, thanks for this update. We have many friends and relatives in Vanuatu and our thoughts and prayers are with them. The ni-Vans will bounce back: wait just six months to see the return of the food, the festivities, and the lush bush that you miss now. My lone qualm with your story is the claim that kava is “the most foul tasting substance you would ever voluntarily put in your mouth”. I drink kava every week, Vanuatu kava is the best around (hard for a Fijian to admit though), and I pay good money for the product. And the drink is desperately needed to soothe the pains of Pam right now – taki!

    • Satish, I drink kava pretty much every evening and agree with you about its importance – but it tastes foul, even after 18 years – come visit us soon and we will have a shell!

  • Thanks Tess for the article.

    It is a great summary of the very changed situation here in our island home.

    The speed at which the people have come together to get things up and running is impressive to say the least.

    As you say there are many challenges ahead in the rebuilding of Vanuatu after Pam. I am optimistic and even more so after witnessing the initial response of the people in the first stages of recovery.

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