2010-03-16: Cyclone Tomas

Thursday Samalu advised me there was a tropical storm near Vanauatu.  I checked it out on the NOAA satellite page and there were actually two storms, one northwest of Fiji and one northeast.  They were both moving away from Fiji so I didn’t think much of it.

Friday afternoon I got a call from our safety and security director that I should probably consider getting off the island before the seas got too rough and too muddy as tropical depression had changed course and was now headed for Fiji. I checked on the afternoon bus schedule and had about 20 minutes to pack everything to catch a boat in time for the bus. 

This is was the fourth time I had to do such an exercise, but I had much more time with the others.  Peace Corps says to keep a bag packed at all times and I now see why.  The only trick is living without the things in the bag while waiting for Armageddon.  I quickly got the emergency stuff like the EPRB, sat phone, and first aid kit.  I then scrambled to pack clothes and toiletries not knowing if I would ever return.  I had just done laundry so half of it was crammed into the bag wet. 

The next step was to ready the house.  This is usually an hour-long process but I had ten minutes.  I pulled most the books from the shelves and stacked them on the bed.  During the last cyclone most of our walls leaked profusely.  I threw the electronics to be left on top of them and then shut all the windows.  I removed the laundry line outside and locked everything up.  After giving the spare key to Samalu I boarded the fibre boat 21 minutes after getting the directive to leave.

It is always nerve racking trying to prepare for any trip in Fiji much less one where I didn’t know where I was going, other than to town, or how long I would be there.  Kelly is much better at this, and she usually helps me remember all the things I forget.  I’m a details guy and often details in these situations take too much time. 

It also drove me crazy that I didn’t have more time to prepare the house.  Completing things like tying down the canoe, trimming trees, gathering loose debris, and shutting off the gas.

Regardless, it was over and I was on the boat.  When we got to Nutuvu landing I was already sweating profusely.  The last several days had been extremely hot and now it was 93 with no wind and very heavy air.  There is something about the weight of the air here that makes the heat amazingly oppressive.  I got off the boat and looked for the money to pay the captain.  I couldn’t find my wallet.  It was ten minutes until the bus was to be at the stop 500 yards away, well out of site for him to see us and wait.  I couldn’t believe that I forgot to pack my wallet, but then remembering the chaos of the last 20 minutes it seemed plausible.  I looked through each bag twice, now panting from the heat and anxiety of going back to Kioa perhaps for good to ride out the storm all because I forgot my damned wallet.  After five minutes I finally remembered hiding in a zipper pocket in case I fell out of the boat.  What, why would that happen?  And why did I put it there.  That is where thinking about all the details gets you.

I paid Tila, the captain, and made my way up the road to the bus stop.  I arrived just at 3:00 pm.  The bus was tardy and I paced a bit to catch my breath.  The stop is right in front of the Nutuvu Mission.  It is a health clinic run by Americans for the local villagers.  I happened to see one of the residents walk by and introduced myself.  Sara was very nice and I met her two daughters.  We exchanged numbers and talked about the upcoming storm.  I asked about the bus and found out it came at 4, not 3.  Oh well, I guess I should have been glad the mix up wasn’t in the other direction. 

The bus rumbled in about 4:20 pm and myself and four other Fijians headed to town on the three+ hour trek.  The bus was as vacant and I had ever seen a Fijian bus and I have been on quite a few.  The trip was pleasant but hot.  The clouds rumbling through the sky entertained me as I listened to a few podcasts from Matt Chandler at The Village and the new Switchfoot album.  Which ironically has a very good song called “Hello Hurricane.”  Thankfully, there called cyclones in the Pacific, at least that is what I thought.

The first night was low key and we waited on news on which way the storm was headed.  All news pointed to a direct hit to Labasa and Savusavu.  This track stayed the same for most of the duration.  News was calling for a category 4 and some websites called for category 2.

On Sunday the news was sketchy, thus the need for my somewhat cynical Vodcast.  I was trying to find humor in something, and it didn’t take long.  In all fairness, once the news did get rolling it was consistent.  Updates occurred every hour even though most of the time the script was repeated with little new information other than the cyclone had moved a few feet during the last hour.

Somehow the phones stayed up and I would quickly check the Navy and NOAA websites for the latest storm tracks trying to conserve as much battery as possible.  The news indicated the nasty winds to start Sunday night with the storm bearing down the next day.  The hotel we were staying at was very safe and high up on a hill.  We were on the fourth floor and had a good view of the bay where half a dozen yachts were anchored.

Sunday I pilled as much furniture as I could against the large storefront glass on one end of the room and hunkered down for a restless night.  The power went out at about 11 pm and the wind really got moving.  I cracked the windows a bit to allow some ventilation and keep the windows from breaking from pressure.

At first the wind came from the east to southeast.  When I woke up I could see it had really battered the coconut trees outside our window and a few pieces of roofing iron were observed taking flight to nearby power lines.  The residents behind the shops quickly scurried out, retrieved the iron, and hammered it back on.  The locals didn’t seem to mind the 80mph wind and were walking around outside.  Sadly this didn’t surprise me.  What did surprise me was Mike’s observation of a guy riding his horse down the street.  I felt sorry for the horse.

The wind and rain continued all day and the worst of it didn’t really hit until late Monday night and early Tuesday.  I set my alarm to wake up every hour to get the radio updates but these rarely changed much.  The eye took a turn due south and was expected to miss Labasa and Savusavu.  I was relieved for my own safety but terrified for those on Kioa, Eastern Vanua Levu, and Taveuni.  Those places are so remote as it is and to get a full on frontal attach by a category 4 hurricane was unthinkable.  I prayed hard and tried to sleep.  About 3 or 4 am the winds reached demonic status.  Gusts where over 200km/hour (124mph) with sustained winds around 150km/hour (93mph).   At the eye, gusts were reported to be 270km/hour with sustained winds 150-200km/hour.  I heard on the radio a local Kioan describing the situation.  The falekaupule (community hall) roof had been blow off and the rugby pitch near the beach was under water.  After that there was no more information from Kioa.

Forty-eight hours later, there is still nothing.  I’ve tried 10 different numbers and even tried calling Taveuni and Nutuvu and no calls are going through.  The road to the boat landing is closed with no word on when it will open.  Flights are cancelled with no expectation to resume anytime soon.  Needless t
o say it is frustrating sitting around town knowing people need immediate assistance and there is nothing I can do.  This is compounded by the fact that Kelly is in Suva and we don’t know when we will be reunited. 

I heard on the radio ships left Suva today for the islands that got the direct hit and that helicopters are being sent out to survey the damage.  I saw one flying overhead in Savusavu this morning. 

It is hard to put into words the emotions and thoughts regarding all this.  I thought writing it all out would help buy my mind is still a swamp of slow thoughts and deep frustration.  Things in town are back to normal and it is as if nothing has happened.  All the while the fate of all our friends on Kioa is unknown.  And that is what is the hardest.  Why can’t somebody get there?  Why is there no information?  By now food should have at least been air lifted and dropped to them but nothing has happened.  And then I remember I’m living in a third world country and when stuff like this happens folks are on their own.  There is no National Guard troop carrier on its way making a path through the fallen trees and washed out roads.  There are no Coast Guard choppers and C130’s making the rounds assessing damage.  Nope, none of this is happening and I’m just having a hard time processing that.  Just one more lesson for me on how blessed we are in the states and how easy it is to forget it.

2 comments on “2010-03-16: Cyclone Tomas

  1. hi matt and kelly
    we just found your website and have read your news update. thanks,, still have not heard from kioa
    collins falesau

  2. hi matt and kelly
    we just found your website and have read your news update. thanks,, still have not heard from kioa
    collins falesau

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