Solomons reeling in wake of double disaster

By Catherine Wilson

More than 6400 people in the remote Santa Cruz Islands in Temotu Province, 500km east of Honiara in the Solomon Islands, are coming to terms with devastation and loss wrought by the double disaster of an earthquake and tsunami last month.

On February 6, the country's second-largest earthquake in 40 years, with a magnitude of 8.0, occurred 33km southwest of the Santa Cruz Islands at an ocean depth of 28.7km, generating tsunami waves that engulfed the Nende Island's western shores where the main provincial town of Lata is located.

The province had been shaken by many tremors in the month prior and by more than 130 aftershocks, some magnitude 6.0 and above, in the weeks after.

The National Disaster Management Office (NDMO), which is leading and co-ordinating the disaster response, reports that 588 dwellings have been destroyed and 15 villages seriously damaged on the island's west coast. Nine people lost their lives in the disaster, but this figure has since risen to 15.

Rachel Lano from Venga village, home to about 300 people, said: "There was no warning at all; suddenly, I heard the sound of the waves and then the tsunami came.

"My young daughter heard the waves and went down to the edge of the sea to have a closer look," she said. "But her father saw the waves get bigger and bigger and rushed out, grabbed her and ran to the hills. Everyone in the village ran to the hills."

In some places, the waves reached 3.5m high and elderly people were some of the most vulnerable.

"One old man was too weak to run, but a youth in the village saw him, helped him to escape and saved his life," she said.

Lano has been through this before. In 1993, much of Venga was destroyed by a cyclone and later rebuilt.

"I was shocked when it happened. My village has been destroyed again and we have lost our homes and possessions."

Her family are still camped on higher ground.

"We're living under tarpaulins, but we have had lots of rain and the tarpaulins can leak," she said. "We have a problem with water and sanitation and we're just living on rice. We are too afraid to go down to our gardens and get vegetables."

"All the fishing boats in our village were destroyed by the tsunami and our fishermen don't want to go back to the sea yet," she added.

Most people in Temotu province, with a population of 20,000, depend on subsistence agriculture and fishing for their livelihoods.

Situated on the Pacific Ring of Fire and above a subduction zone where two of the Earth's tectonic plates collide, the Solomon Islands have a high-risk exposure to earthquakes, tsunamis, tropical cyclones, volcanic eruptions, landslides and floods.

This disaster follows a tsunami in 2010 which caused structural damage on the island of Rendova, northwest of Guadalcanal, leaving a third of the population without shelter. Another lethal tsunami struck the country's Western Province in 2007, killing 52 and leaving thousands homeless.

In Temotu province, half of Nende Island's population has directly suffered as a result of the earthquake and tsunami.

According to World Vision, which has been on the ground assisting with relief work, the west coast of the island has been worst affected, many homes washed away. Elsewhere on the island, communities are suffering the effects of the earthquake and landslides which have destroyed food gardens and contaminated water sources.

More than 3000 people have been displaced and many remain under temporary shelter. Many villagers are hesitant to return to coastal areas in the middle of the cyclone season, fearing further damage before the wet season finishes.

The Solomon Islands Red Cross and World Vision have been working closely with the NDMO to distribute food, water, shelter, hygiene kits and mosquito nets.

New Zealand, Australia, Britain, Japan and Taiwan have given aid and assistance.

George Baragamu, NDMO's chief operations officer, told the Weekend Herald the province was still an active disaster area, but with assessments done the Government was now planning for the recovery phase.

This was the first time the NDMO had fully implemented the Government's comprehensive disaster management plan, introduced in 2010, and so far a better co-ordinated response had helped speed up emergency relief.

- NZ Herald

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