Pacific paradise turns to hell

Kaitaia man John Llewellyn had his trip to Samoa well planned. He spends a good deal of time raising money in the Far North on behalf of village children, and everything was very much under control on this trip as he relaxed "in heaven" in his beachfront fale at Coconuts Resort, on the south side of the island of Upolu.

Then heaven turned to hell.

John heard the warnings of strong winds, but wasn't prepared for the full fury of Cyclone Evan.

"When 150mph gusts came in, things went from bad to worse," he said.

"The windows popped, water came from all directions. I frantically texted New Zealand to ring the Coconuts office to get me out of there. I wasn't to know of the devastation around me - power lines down right through the district, phones out, trees ripped out and shredded.

"My rescuers came after I had watched my possessions being flung around the room and washed out the door."

Four days of hell had descended on him and the surrounding villages, and even another fale didn't offer a great deal of comfort.

"It was drier and warmer but I was still in pitch blackness," he said. "The screaming wind and rain were not unlike a turbine at full speed. (His neighbour in Kaitaia, Mike Rider, could hear the wind and surf over the phone, although they were small change compared with the explosion of sound when a tree crashed into John's fale while they were talking.)

"Trees were smashing, coconuts hurling missiles crashing into walls, smashing windows, sheets of twisted tin ripped from roofs and flung around like sheets of paper, timber of all shapes and sizes mixed into this soup from hell. The silence was deafening, no wind, then it came back with a vengeance in a different direction, ripping apart what had been spared before.

"Morning saw a mass of broken trees, palm fonds strewn all over the resort, fales with no roofs, huge trees smashed through buildings, chaos everywhere. There was no power, phone or any type of communication except those lucky enough to have Telecom Digicel. No food, running water or those things we take for granted. Dinner was a slice of bread, a tomato and a handful of rice.

"The village was a sea of lost faces. Houses I had taken sweets and pens to for the children had been erased from the Earth. Some remains still stood, clothes lying around or hanging from trees. Smashed proudly-owned possessions were a sad sight.

"One in 10 houses still stood, the lush green landscape now a twisted broken mess of shredded trees. Where a fale had once held laughing, smiling children, there was now nothing but broken timber, ruined furniture, Christmas toys smashed, some still partially wrapped. A small dog slowly emerged from fallen foliage looking for friendly face."

John said his hunger and fear gave way to a deep sadness for the people he loved, surrounded by destruction.

"I felt as if I was on another planet. Nothing was recognisable other than a few still standing houses," he said.

"Villagers were just looking in wonder and thanking God they survived. Picking up pieces of wood and tin, they started to try and improve what they had left.

"I was fed by the resort management and a few girls who came back. They did everything they could but we were in the same boat."

Mike Rider was back in Kaitaia, arranging to get him out (his brother Peter, a member of the Diplomatic Corps, is New Zealand's High Commissioner in Berlin, which gives him some influential contacts), but it was obviously going to be a long wait.

"Without his help, I'm sure I would still be there, helping clean up after a storm from hell," he added.

"A 20-mile stretch, maybe more on the south coast, was totally trashed. The devastation was bad enough, but then came the looters. Resorts were easy targets."

John did make it out though, in one piece, "thanks to Mike and his tireless efforts". And now he's launched an appeal on behalf of the villagers who are still there, with nowhere else to go.

- Northland Age

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