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The power of good neighbours

When Tropical Cyclone Harold hit Vanuatu, Red Cross volunteers hiked along clifftops and traversed overflowing creeks to help remote and hard-to-reach communities.
Some of the many Red Cross volunteers who helped their communities when Tropical Cyclone Harold hit. Photo: Vanuatu Red Cross

Cyclone Harold left a trail of destruction and many people with nothing but the clothes on their backs when it struck Vanuatu earlier this year. In some parts of the country, it’s estimated more than 70% of the houses were partially damaged or completely destroyed, affecting almost 130,000 people.

Lugging heavy relief supplies, Vanuatu Red Cross teams walked long distances to reach those most in need. They crossed overflowing creeks and muddied roads full of debris, sometimes walking along cliffs, pummelled by the rain.

Along the way, they slept wherever they could find space and ate whenever they had time. All the while dealing with the country’s COVID-19 lockdown measures that made getting aid to where it was needed even harder.

Some of the worst destruction was on the island of Pentecost, where 90% of houses, evacuation centres, crops, water, health and school facilities were destroyed. Hundreds of people suffered serious injuries during the cyclone that flattened buildings and cut power. Even the island’s cyclone-adapted coconut trees were strewn around like twigs.

Pentecost’s rivers spilled over, causing roadblocks and forcing many to make their way on foot to collect the essentials they needed to survive.

Volunteer Larissa helps a man get to an emergency distribution centre. Photo: Vanuatu Red Cross

Vanuatu Red Cross volunteer Larissa described how she rushed to help an older man when stumbled on his way to an emergency distribution centre. “I [ran] to lend him a hand, give him a little support. I helped to put his slippers on correctly so he can walk up to the distribution point.

It was so emotional when I saw tears running down his eyes, when I gave him the tarpaulin, kitchen set, hygiene kit, blanket, solar lamp … That moment, when you realise the little gesture you give to someone in need, you feel you did something good.

TC Harold was the strongest cyclone to hit the Pacific in years and it wasn’t just Vanuatu that was battered. After passing through the Solomon Islands as a Category 2, it quickly intensified into a Category 5 before sweeping through the central islands of Vanuatu and tracking through southern Fiji and Tonga.

The cyclone caused widespread destruction and 30 people lost their lives, 28 of whom were swept off a ferry in rough seas in the Solomon Islands. The passengers had been on their way back to their home villages as part of the country’s COVID-19 contingency measures.

Across the Pacific, hundreds of Red Cross staff and, volunteers just like Larissa are the first responders, helping their communities, friends, families and neighbours survive and cope in an emergency.

Vanuatu Red Cross volunteers with some of the relief supplies. Photo: Vanuatu Red Cross

We’ve partnered with our fellow Red Cross societies in Vanuatu, Fiji, Tonga and the Solomon Islands to help them train and equip their emergency response teams. These teams can help with everything from early warning messages and emergency shelter, to distributing relief supplies and providing psychological first-aid to people suffering trauma.

In the wake of TC Harold, we also sent essential relief items, arranged aid workers to assist with shelter and logistics, and helped fund the response operation.

Just a few years ago, a Category 5 cyclone would have been a major humanitarian catastrophe in the Pacific, with the potential for a significant loss of life.

Thanks to these local teams of well-trained volunteers – and pre-positioned relief supplies – communities in the cyclone’s path were evacuated to safety and relief and support was quick to arrive.

It’s volunteers like Larissa, trained and ready to help their neighbours, who make all the difference in a disaster.

Read more about our work across the Asia-Pacific and around the world

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