FEATURED STORY

AFTER THE STORM

A First Responder's account of the resilient people of Vanuatu after a devastating tropical cyclone

by Jacob Schafer, International Medical Corps

Jacob Schafer was the Team Lead for the Vanuatu Emergency Response Team. When not responding to disasters, he is an Advisor for Medical Planning and Preparedness at International Medical Corps.

Jacob Schafer helps deliver supplies via air taxi to the island of Ambrym after Tropical Cyclone Pam

The storm had not even cleared Vanuatu and already our response team was mobilized from around the globe and converging on the tiny island nation in the remote South Pacific. Tropical Cyclone Pam (the strongest storm on Earth since Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines in 2013) had barreled over Vanuatu’s most populous islands; destroying homes, disrupting livelihoods, and severing communications links with outer islands that are still being reestablished today.

When the International Medical Corps Vanuatu Emergency Response Team arrived in the heavily damaged capital city just 72 hours after Tropical Cyclone Pam had struck there was no way of knowing how badly the other islands had been affected or what the immediate needs would be. Drawing on our most recent experiences responding to Typhoon Haiyan and Typhoon Phailin (which hit the coast of India in 2013) responses, we made the decision to deploy mobile medical units. These units are fully self-contained agile platforms for delivering primary health care via whatever means possible – in the back of a 4x4 vehicle, in damaged health centers, in tents carried by donkeys, or in our case: via banana boats and community centers. We consulted with the Government about the best place to dispatch the units and they requested we go to the island of Ambrym.

Ambrym is not your typical tropical paradise. It has experienced a remarkable series of unfortunate events including a large earthquake three weeks prior to the cyclone, a re-invigorated volcano in the middle of the island that is spewing noxious gas, and now a Category 5 typhoon that slammed into the north and southeast sides of the island. Adding insult to injury, the people of Ambrym are greatly feared by locals for suspicion they practice black magic and perform bizarre rituals.

International Medical Corps dispatched two mobile medical units to Ambrym and found the situation to be quite dire. The earthquake had separated pipes that carry water from mountain streams and now entire villages were solely dependent on household catchment tanks for drinking water, many of which had been broken by the storm or contaminated with volcanic ash. Family gardens and food crops had been completely destroyed. Homes, hospitals, schools, and places of worship were heavily damaged. Food aid would be arriving soon, fortunately, but it was clear to us that International Medical Corps was going to be the only first responder staying on the ground in Ambrym. We immediately expanded our operations to include the distribution of emergency water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) supplies including soap, jerry cans, and water purification tablets to every single household. We set the goal to provide access to medical care and a means to transport and store potable water for everyone on Ambrym.

For me, the story of Tropical Cyclone Pam is about the resilient people of Ambrym and its small neighboring island of Paama.

It is about the 7 local nurses and midwives who worked alongside our experienced doctors.

It is about David, the 25-year-old man that walked into our clinic for shortness of breath when one of our doctors noticed a severe heart murmur. Diagnosed with a rare aneurism of the aorta, he was sent to the central hospital in the capital city for specialized care requiring urgent attention. With no doctors on Ambrym, he could have died any day without the diagnosis.

It is about 2-year-old Jessica brought to our clinic by her father with nearly amputated fingers from a knife accident. Our doctors were able to reattach both fingertips and she now has the chance to regain full use.

The Emergency Response Team completed its work and departed Vanuatu one month after its deployment. Reflecting on the scale and scope of the disaster it is clear the effects of Pam will be felt for years, perhaps as long as a decade. But as quickly as the storm came and went, people have started rebuilding their homes, villages have cleared debris and replanted gardens, and the government has embarked upon a comprehensive recovery plan. The people of Ambrym and Paama are resilient by necessity and are committed to better disaster preparedness in the future. I am proud of the assistance International Medical Corps provided in facilitating this transition from relief to self-reliance in the wake of Tropical Cyclone Pam.