A pregnant woman and her unborn child are among up to three people killed in Vanuatu during a severe cyclone that ripped through and devastated parts of the small Pacific nation.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Nanaia Mahuta said she was deeply saddened by reports of three fatalities in Vanuatu during Tropical Cyclone Lola, which was a category 5 strong cyclone at one point.
“Aotearoa New Zealand’s thoughts are with their whānau and friends,” she wrote online.
“We continue to work closely with our Pacific partners to support those affected.”
New Zealand’s High Commissioner to Vanuatu, Nicci Simmonds, told RNZ’s Morning Report she knew of two deaths on Ambrym Island, including a pregnant woman who could not get medical attention because the roads were out.
“She passed away with her unborn child,” Simmonds, who had visited the island, told the programme.
“There was also an elderly woman who the chiefs had implied had a stroke or a heart attack.”
Simmons described seeing traditional homes flattened and destroyed.
The cyclone left a trail of destruction when it bore down on Vanuatu last week and left significant damage in northern parts - including in Torba and Pentecost Province.
After the storm, ‘brutal’ heat and no shade
Secondary school teacher Andrew Gray, who lives on the West Coast of Pentecost Island, has also described harrowing scenes in the aftermath of yet another cyclone.
It follows two other major cyclones - and an earthquake - in March this year, during which a State of Emergency was declared for the entire country.
Speaking to the Herald from the boarding school he works and lives at, Ranwadi Churches of Christ College, he said people were cleaning up and slowly starting to rebuild their homes and lives again.
“This is the second big cyclone that we’ve had in four years, and the fourth altogether, so we’re getting quite used to this now. We know what to expect.
“The sun came out a day or so after the cyclone and it’s brutal. The weather has turned really hot and there is no shade anywhere. All the leaves are gone from big trees,” he said.
“But it’s given people a chance to dry up the contents of their house.”
The weather forecast on Pentecost Island has temperature highs of 27C and 28C this week.
Gray, who lives on campus with his wife and two young children, said they had heard of fatalities on Ambrym Island.
People are collecting as much as they can and looking at better ways to rebuild their homes, he said.
At the school, locals were helping staff and students to literally pick up the pieces - everything from clothes, chairs, furniture and soggy textbooks are being salvaged and dried in the sun.
“Having sorted out their houses, people are now starting to venture to their gardens. Most people here live off subsistence gardens which, in some cases, are quite a long way from the village - along small bush paths,” Gray said.
A call for help to build cyclone-proof homes
“So just getting to them after a cyclone can be a bit of a challenge. People are starting to go to their gardens now to assess the damage, which is quite bad from what I hear.”
Speaking about the night the cyclone moved over the home, Gray - who has lived in Vanuatu for about 10 years - said it lasted a lot longer than most storms they have had.
“I had a conversation with my wife the afternoon before it struck about what building are we least likely to get killed in tonight.
“The conclusion was that our own house here is made of concrete...so we spent the night there. Our two children slept soundly.
“My wife and I were awake listening a bit fearfully to the noises outside - hearing roofing metal and timber flying about and wondering if our roof was the next to come off.”
Gray acknowledged some homes remained damaged from Cyclone Harold, in 2020. But major buildings that were built or rebuilt after that cyclone had mostly coped well this time.
Moving forward, he said assistance may be needed from overseas in terms of making sure homes rebuilt were cyclone-proof - a major concern for many locals.
“At the end of the day, Vanuatu is a poor country. People face choices between for example paying their children’s school fees and building a concrete house.
“I think there is a need for support not just in rebuilding them, but rebuilding them in such a way that they will withstand future cyclones and we won’t be caught in this endless cycle of build, destroy, rebuild.”