New Zealand’s High Commissioner to Samoa, Nick Hurley shares his experience of the five days immediately following Tropical Cyclone Evan which struck Samoa, then Fiji, in December.
Day 1 | Thursday 13 December 2012
A stormy morning in Apia. Cyclone Evan was named yesterday after it developed from a tropical storm to a Category 1 cyclone. It had strengthened to Category 2 overnight but winds were only forecast to reach 55 miles per hour. Hardly the stuff of real cyclones, or so it seemed. Will it turn into a real cyclone? The Met Service says they expect the tropical storm to intensify as it approaches Samoa and we have been put on Storm Warning, Hurricane Watch and Flood Advisory.
The in-coming flight from NZ with Prime Minister Tuilaepa on board is cancelled; the pilot deciding the risk is too great. A formal Declaration of Disaster has been made. At the High Commission we allocate responsibilities among staff for managing the response. At midday, I send local staff home in case it develops into a real cyclone. While windy and stormy, the weather is no worse than a typical wet season storm – less than a Wellington southerly. Winds have knocked down most advertising billboards but there is little sign of substantial damage.
We consult with Wellington, the Disaster Management Office (NDMO) and the Australians on developments. The cyclone is predicted to skirt the southern side of Upolu then turn back south west and intensify possibly after reaching as far as American Samoa. But cyclones follow their own route, not computer projections, and we don’t know how Evan will track or how strong it will be. We head home to be on the safe side. The Cyclone Shelter below the Residence is readied. It is reassuring to have had a run-through of responses in November.
Suddenly, about 3pm, fierce hurricane winds explode from the south. Trees around the High Commission bend in half. A wall of water perhaps a metre high forms in mid-harbour as the incoming waves are driven back by the wind. Police direct traffic back to town as they try to clear the road. Pools of water build up inside homes, faster than towels and mops can deal with them.
We detect – perhaps imagine - a slight easing in the torrential winds at about 4.45pm so leave for home in convoy, heading toward the Cross Island Road just to the right of the Chancery. It is flooded. People are waist-deep in the muddy ochre water. Rather than going on past Aggies hotel, we turn to find another way. The next road between the old Court House and the Police HQ is similarly flooded.
We drive on in the lashing rain along Beach Road, past the Catholic cathedral under construction, the blue sheets of its corrugated iron fence already scattered over the road or fluttering precariously on nails and threatening to fly in our path.
Anything not securely nailed down is on the road or scattered across other properties by the driving winds and rain. Wires from power poles or telephones – we have no time or interest in investigating – swung down low or lay over the road. Just below Robert Louis Stevenson’s Vailima, a multi-branched tree has fallen across the road but fortunately someone has chain-sawed enough of it to allow cars to pass. Further on, another tree has fallen across the road beside Vailima’s fence. It is a mango tree under which mothers and children would sit, shaded, waiting for students from Vailima Primary School.
Day 2 | Friday 14 December
We wake to a less windy, overcast day; no sign of Evan. Power is off to all Upolu. Critical services such as the hospital and Meteorology service are being powered by standby generators, as is the High Commission chancery and houses. Tank water is the only solution for everyone at this stage. The forecast is that the cyclone might double on itself and follow its own track west. It has intensified to a category 3. Given the reported scale of damage from its first pass over Upolu, we wait anxiously. By midday, it becomes clear Evan is moving north, well away from Samoa although expected to track west and possibly brush Savaii.
Now to assess the impact. Around Apia, a number of houses have lost all or part of their roofs. Some completely ruined. We hear reports of three dead in Apia from the Vaisigano river flooding. Cars pile on top of houses; houses are completely demolished or near collapse or not there; shipping containers lie oddly among buildings; knee-high sticky red-brown mud coats everything not in or under muddy water; and dozens of massive white logs stripped of their bark are piled like randomly strewn giant bones.
High Commison staff visit the evacuation centres around Apia where at least 1500 people have sought refuge. The Red Cross and the Ministry of Health are helping out. No sign of New Zealanders among the evacuees. I respond to calls from media and remain in touch with Wellington, DMO and the Australians.
Day 3 | Saturday 15 December
I drive my partner to the airport as she is travelling to her son’s wedding in New Zealand. It’s unnerving driving in complete darkness; all of Upolu is without power. The head of Samoa’s MFAT, Mose Sua, says he felt similarly disconcerted when flying into Faleolo on that same flight s,eeing Savaii all lit up but just darkness over Upolu. Prime Minister Tuilaepa arrives on the in-coming flight. I go to the National Disaster Council where the PM chairs a meeting of Cabinet members, CEOs of Government departments and SOEs, along with diplomatic missions and NGOs. After a quick report, focusing on the loss of water (to most of Apia and to much of rural Upolu), power (all of Upolu), housing, and evacuation centres, the Prime Minister iterates that outside help will only be sought after a proper assessment of the damage, as he’d already old Prime Minister Key in NZ. I relay New Zealand’s offer of $50,000 for immediate assistance as well as RNZAF aerial surveillance. Other missions outline their Governments’ support. Assessment teams are formed on the spot. We host a donors meeting at 2pm to discuss coordinating responses pending the Samoa Government’s organisation of a meeting. AusAID, Japan/JICA, UNDP and WHO attend. It’s agreed New Zealand be coordinator for donors during the crisis. The Samoa Government also seeks assistance with search and rescue for missing fishermen. The humanitarian task takes priority and triggers arrangements for a P3 Orion to come into Samoa as soon as possible. We liaise with NZDF, Samoa Police and MFAT to facilitate arrangements for the flight.
Day 4 | Sunday 16 December
I go to the office by way of the Lelata area. The scene is devastation. I see Allan Alo who introduces me to his parents and says they own the two large houses immediately below us. They escaped with four minutes to spare as the fast-rising river swirled around their homes. He recounts watching adults and children being swept along and upwards by the surging waters, to safety in most cases. Back at the office, I catch up on developments. High Commission staff assess south western Upolu with Government teams and take photos for Wellington to convey the reality of the destruction. Meanwhile, the P3 Orion has arrived in Samoa airspace and is searching for the lost fishers. It drops off Major James Joseph, an environmental health adviser, who will help the Samoa Ministry of Health assess public health impacts and responses. No luck finding the missing fishers.
Day 5 | Monday 17 December
I attend the National Disaster Council which meets briefly before making a quick assessment visit to key affected areas of Apia and south western Upolu. Michael Mora from TV3 doorstops PM Tuilaepa but (in contrast to John Campbell in 2010) he happily gives an interview. Tuilaepa says he thinks the overall cost of Cyclone Evan will be about 300 million tala (comparable to the 2009 tsunami response). We set off in a convoy of around twenty vehicles, the Prime Minister leading. At Leone, we look at the bridge that has been undermined by the log-filled deluge and now partly collapsed. We drive around Vailoa and Matautu, everywhere showing signs of the flooding. We drive over the Cross Island Road, past our residence, to Siumu. Siumu has been savagely beaten by Evan. Shells of houses stand alongside partly demolished houses. Many have lost their roof or a significant part of the building. The school has lost classrooms. Anything old or poorly constructed, whether traditional fale or western-style, is hardest hit. But even modern churches have been badly hit, one virtually destroyed from an imploding roof. During the cyclone, streams became raging rivers and burst their banks from the pressure. We pass roading contractors and teams from EPC and Bluesky who are busy trying to repair damage. Dozens of power poles lie on the ground, still joined by wires. Damage to bananas, mangoes and breadfruit is universal, though farmers have already chopped the banana plants in half to allow the new leaves to grow. The taro looks OK unless it is still under water.
We continue through Falelatai with its more moderate damage and then drive to the airport. There is only minor damage on the western side of Upolu. We return via Aleisa to Apia. The Prime Minister insists no decisions will be made until assessments are complete. Later that day, the Government declares a 30 day State of Emergency to simplify decision-making and release Government funding urgently.
Since Cyclone Evan New Zealand has committed more than $2 million to Samoa for the relief and clean up effort, power generation and restoration of power lines, support for health services and transitional schooling for communities where schools have been damaged or destroyed. New Zealand also provided specialists to assist with damage assessment and recovery, including a flood and disaster risk engineer and hydro-power and dam engineers.