More than a dozen houses built by Australian volunteers just outside Port Vila in Vanuatu survived intact, despite weathering the full force of Cyclone Pam one month ago. They are among the few houses still standing in the community, amid widespread destruction that has devastated parts of the country.
Management consultant and volunteer, Philippe Bland travelled to Vanuatu in 2002 with Habitat for Humanity Australia to build one of the homes that would withstand the Category 5 storm on 13 March.
“To find out the homes are still standing and provided protection through the cyclone is so rewarding to hear,” said Philippe. “I was 22 when I volunteered. It was the biggest contribution I’d made to a cause at the time. It was so meaningful. Helping to build someone’s home is such an emotional experience.”
The owners of these homes – built using steel curved roofs yet costing less than $1,000 each at the time – sheltered in a nearby church when the cyclone hit. When they emerged they were stunned to discover their homes were among the few in this region to survive the super storm.
Each year Habitat for Humanity sends teams of Australian volunteers overseas on Global Village trips to help build houses in some of the poorest nations in our region. The program has supported over 4,000 Australian volunteers to travel and work across the Asia Pacific. They have built more than 350 homes for families in desperate need.
Habitat for Humanity Australia chief executive Martin Thomas says the survival of the houses in Vanuatu underlines the importance of preparing communities for disasters – such as building ‘cyclone proof’ houses.
“Disaster resistant measures help ensure communities are not only prepared for disasters, but can mitigate the effects when they do strike,” said Mr Thomas.
Such was the ferocity of Cyclone Pam, that widespread damage to communities was almost inevitable. Vanuatu is still in a state of emergency. 75,000 people are in need of shelter from damage inflicted by the disaster, according to the United Nations.
While we have witnessed Australian’s generosity to such emergencies, it is clear the international response to support devastated communities in Vanuatu is falling short, leaving a shortfall of funding for recovery. This, coupled with logistical challenges can delay aid from reaching hardest hit communities, many in remote areas.
Habitat for Humanity Australia is playing a leading role in helping devastated communities by distributing emergency shelter kits which typically include plywood, timber, corrugated iron, nails and tools.
They also plan to implement longer-term shelter initiatives to bolster the self-recovery efforts of families forced to rebuild after the devastation left by Cyclone Pam.
“Communities must not only be consulted, they should participate in every step of the rebuilding process,” said Mr Thomas.
“The role of aid agencies should be to supplement what the people of Vanuatu are already doing. They should support their efforts at self-recovery, provide technical assistance on how to repair and rebuild their homes, and procure materials from local markets to stimulate the local economy.”
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Australian volunteers work with local families to build homes with steel curved roofs just outside Port Vila in Vanuatu, August 2002
The houses that Australian volunteers helped build withstood the force of Cyclone Pam, outside Port Vila on 27 March 2015