Giving aid in the aftermath of Cyclone Pam

This brief is aimed at sailing friends/cruisers who are planning to come to Vanuatu and want to bring aid post Cyclone Pam. It is our personal view of what to expect/how to help etc., based on our experiences to date. Parts of it may also prove useful to other cruisers wanting to help in the aftermath of other cyclones.

Where we’ve been so far

We chose to head north from Efate where the capital Port Vila is situated and we had been based for the cyclone season. Our first stop, we anchored in Sulua Bay (17°02.974’S, 168°22.300’E) on the island of Emae, one of the Shepherd Islands.

We chose these areas based on advice from Port Vila local charity ProMedical, Sam and Jess of Kaleva Yacht Services and a report on Epi compiled by chiefs kindly given to us by David and Lynn of the Butterfly Trust.

Considering the islands worst affected by the cyclone, our thinking on sailing north from Port Vila was defined by the fact that we know Tanna and Erromango are getting help from current aid efforts and cruisers arriving from New Zealand and that the Shepherd Islands close to Efate, within reach of local day boats, are similarly getting aid. The anchorage on Emae is 38nm to the north of Havannah Harbour in north Efate and beyond the reach of small local boats. Epi is 22nm north from there.

Our experience on Emae

On arrival in Emae we took a few supplies and went to the village of Tapakoro where we spoke to the chief, Usamoli Samuel (phone: +678 7741702). Their village has been very badly damaged from the cyclone. The majority of houses were lost, their crops were destroyed, water tanks damaged and they lost some cattle. They had harvested some crops before the cyclone (one villager told us they had about 2 days warning) and are still eating those now; they have replanted some of the crops that they saved, and already have island cabbage (like spinach) growing. They ate the meat of the cattle that were killed. Most of their chickens survived.

They seemed a very well organised and harmonious village. There are 11 families, around 40 people. Typically positive, they have been clearing up (using 2 chainsaws from the government) and rebuilding what they can with what they have got. They have very limited materials to work with.

Asking them what they need, building materials and food were the biggest request. They have implemented a community project of planting quick-growing crops. No-one is starving but they were very grateful of anything and estimate it will be 3 months before crops are growing sufficiently that they will be able to feed themselves.

We arranged to meet at the beach the next morning and in advance we asked the chief if he would help in ensuring our small aid was fairly shared and to invite another village. The next morning people from both Tapakoro and Veima villages came down to the beach and carried the supplies to Tapakoro where it was placed in a communal hall. The chief kindly thanked us for coming to help saying it was a complete surprise and in turn we did a quick speech saying the goods were from donations from friends.

Our goods were taken to a central point and each household had a bowl into which all food was divided, fair and square. Then all the kitchenware, plates, bowls, toiletries etc. were shared out too. Even the clothing was equally shared and caused much amusement for the man trying to distribute it. They went to the extent of sharing the nails out one-by-one and even took the 600m of rope and worked out each household got 37.5m. All axes, hammers, saws and things like tarpaulins became communal property.

Susie ran a basic first aid clinic treating around 20 people with various cuts, sores etc.

The things they have asked for and we agree they need quickly are more building materials, food, water and seeds to replant crops.

Our experience on South Epi

When we arrived we visited two villages. While we saw some damage in the form of damaged huts/roofs had been sustained, it was not at the same level as Emae. Crops have been damaged but we could still see the likes of tarot growing (a common root vegetable). While it was a tough call we decided to stick to our original plan and asked a villager if we could arrange transport to get to South Epi to the village of Votlo. A bumpy fun ride on poor roads, 1h30min later we arrived. It was immediately evident that they sustained a lot more damage. Most houses were flattened. They have some tarpaulins, have planted new crops but food and water are still in short supply. The school is closed due to damage. Water is hauled from a distance off. With time short for our hired truck, in the presence of the chief and all the people of the village we handed over the aid, explained it all, walked around the village and offered basic medical help but the chief said everyone was well. It was a shame we had to leave after a short while but people were again very appreciative.

Our overall experience is that the Shepherd Islands and South Epi still need more assistance.

What to bring

  • Key requirements seem to be building materials and food at this stage.
  • Bring building materials including nails (lots!), hammers, saws, axes, strong rope. Please buy cyclone proof style nails for roofs, these are readily available in the hardware stores in Port Vila (Wilco, Port Vila Hardware). More secure are cyclone proof screws, but these require a drill and as islanders do not have these or the power for them, get the twisted nails with round heads. The lengths of nails we understand are used for traditional roofs are 6″, 4″ and 2″. Traditional natangura used for roofs is expected to take one to three years to grow.
  • For food, we supplied tinned meat and fish, rice, tea bags, powdered milk, Milo powdered drink and biscuits. Powdered milk was popular. A packet of biscuits gets a big smile. One man told us the rice we gave (approximately 3kg per household) would feed his small family for about 2 weeks. We bought everything in Port Vila from the Bon Marche Warehouse (you can buy in bulk here, by the box load).
  • Kitchen utensils were mentioned as being in need – we supplied plastic plates, bowls, cups, cutlery, cooking utensils, cleaning cloths, towels, buckets. These can be sourced from one of the many Chinese shops in Port Vila – we chose Uncle Bill’s in the centre of town on ‘Chinese Alley’.
  • Few were thinking about health and we supplied anti-bacterial soap, toothpaste and toothbrushes. For anyone she treated, Susie gave extra antiseptic wipes, plasters, wound dressings etc. for them to use themselves for the next few days. She also reminded everyone to wash hands before cooking, after using the toilet and for children, to wash around their neck/upper chest, underarm and groin areas (based on advice from medics seeing children with rashes/infections in those areas) – this always got a giggle from the children as she stood demonstrating where to wash.
  • People seemed to have recovered their limited clothing from the cyclone but any clothes will be greatly appreciated.

    Our thoughts on how to approach giving aid

  • Think realistically about what/how much you have and who you can help. Far better to make a meaningful difference to one village than spread yourself thin over several villages.
  • First and foremost ask to speak to the chief. Chiefs are friendly, helpful people and there are no formal ceremonies as in Fiji. If the chief isn’t there, many villages have elders who you could also talk to.
  • Do try and reach out to villages beyond those at the anchorages. It’s not easy, but talk to a chief and ask him if he knows other villages that need help. You may need to hire transport.
  • Try and do a self-assessment before you start giving things. Start with general chit-chat – what was it like, where did you stay during the cyclone? Ask how much damage was done? Look around the village, ask what aid they have received, what food they have, what crops they have/are growing? Ask about re-building efforts, what the community is doing? Try your best and just use common sense, none of us are disaster recovery experts.
  • You’ll find people are getting on with life, making the best of things. You’ll probably be there when building efforts are well under way, and crops are starting to grow.
  • You will find the locals a little shy in asking what they want so you may need to prompt them on their needs. You will usually find English is spoken by at least some of the village, and if not, try French.
  • Once you have picked your village tell the chief what you can give and your plans. Tell him you want everything shared and ask him how he can help organise it. If time permits, return the next day as with our case in Emae, they planned themselves and were keen to show us they would share everything.
  • Expect a small speech from the chief. In return, it’s good to stand-up and say a few words and explain where your aid came from and why you are there. This is normal and courteous throughout Vanuatu and you’ll get a healthy applause and a lot of smiles.
  • Explain everything you have bought. In particular, explain any toiletries and any basic medical aid. Encourage hygiene as children have been getting sick.
  • You will most likely get some small offering in return, this is Vanuatu culture. Typically some crop, perhaps a craft; if they give you food, pick a little thing and tell them they should keep the rest.
  • Tell them what skills you have and how you can help. Cruisers have always been relied on to help fix things. Things will appear from non-functioning water pumps to broken personal DVD players.
  • Try to catch some fish – bring it ashore to share and expect a crowd.

    Final thoughts

    If possible, please spend your donor money in Port Vila where there are plenty of supplies especially food and hardware. The hardware stores are well stocked with re-building materials and you can get them VAT-free if you explain they are for rebuilding after the cyclone. Your money importantly goes into the local economy.

    Do download the free guide ‘All Ports Lead to Vanuatu’ from for everything you need to know about Vanuatu. A quality production. For up-to-date advice, Port Vila locals and experts Sam and Jess of KYS are trying to co-ordinate cruiser help, together with Eric and Anne Simmons who produce the cruising guide and David and Lynn of the Butterfly Trust who know these islands well.

    The longer you stay in an anchorage, the more you will be absorbed into the community and the harder you will find it to leave. Remember, after your efforts helping, in the more northern islands unaffected by the cyclone, things like land diving in Pentecost are still on in April/May/June. Please visit! We can assure you of the adventure of a lifetime with the nicest, friendliest people possible who will be so appreciative of your visit.

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