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Reflections from Vanuatu – rebuilding lives after Cyclone Pam

Jeff De Jesus, from our International Programs team shares his experience of working on the ground in Vanuatu to build disaster resilient communities after Cyclone Pam.

Even before the last nail has been fully hammered, a small number of people are starting to applaud. Others take up the cue, and soon the air fills with shouts of joy as this infectious energy takes hold of everyone in sight.

It’s amazing to think that just one week ago, this site was little more than a pile of rubble. Bits of broken tree trunks, twisted shards of iron and a shattered concrete floor were the only remnants of the modest kindergarten that once stood here.

Now the framework of a new structure which can house more than 50 students stands proudly over the relics of the old school. In March 2015, Cyclone Pam laid havoc to the islands of Vanuatu. Among the most severely hit were the small communities of south east Ambrym.

Home to an active volcano, the island regularly experiences downpours of acid rain and basic infrastructure is non-existent. With no electricity, no running water, and having to live off whatever little this harsh volcanic landscape can produce, life was already tough for the people on the island. But following the devastation of Cyclone Pam, life became just that much harder. The 250km per hour winds that lashed this region destroyed almost everything in sight, leaving over 1,700 people without a home.

Straight after the cyclone, Habitat for Humanity was on the ground, helping rebuild homes that were lost or damaged. Currently 46 houses are in the process of being rebuilt.

As part of Habitat’s recovery efforts, I work with a small team which provides training to the local communities to increase their skills in building disaster resilient structures. We also facilitate workshops that raise awareness of hazards concerning the building of safe shelters, including producing an emergency community plan that can be followed when another natural disaster hits.

In the two months that I’ve spent living and working with these amazing people, 345 participants completed the construction training and 67 people took part in the safe shelter awareness workshops. In addition, Habitat has also established five community toolkit libraries which comprise of essentials such as saws, hammers, spirit levels and other equipment that community members of south east Ambrym can borrow when needed.

All of this would not have been possible if not for the efforts of Kirby Norman, a 51-year old father of five and the Area Secretariat for south east Ambrym. Kirby has been key in raising community awareness and told me with great optimism:

“We are so glad that you have come to help our community. The training that Habitat has provided will help in rebuilding everything we have lost. We are so isolated from the rest of the world that sometimes we feel no one knows we are here. It feels really good to know we have not been forgotten”.

In a few days I fly back to Australia, and even though I know it will be hard saying goodbye to my new extended Ni-Vanuatu family, I feel extremely privileged to have been involved in Habitat’s recovery efforts, and am hopeful that the people of south east Ambrym are better prepared for the future.

Jeff De Jesus
July 2016

Find out more

Your support can help transform the lives of disaster affected families in Vanuatu. Discover how your donation can support families in Vanuatu and read more about our transformative work in the country after Cyclone Pam.

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