Snapshots from the Field: "Nature has its own timeline"
By Liz Millership
On Monday morning, Cyclone Harold ripped through Vanuatu – one of the strongest storms on record to make landfall on the tiny Pacific nation. Hurricane-force winds tore down communications lines as heavy flooding uprooted trees and damaged buildings. In parallel, the remote archipelago has been preparing for COVID-19, which hangs like a shadow across the country. Remarkably, Vanuatu – a nation of 83 islands dotted across the Pacific Ocean – remains one of the few countries in the world without any confirmed cases of the virus. Yet, the nation is in a state of emergency to protect against the devastating impact should the virus reach its shores.
“The fact that we’re currently dealing with both a pandemic and now a high category cyclone – which is still active – shows that nature has its own timeline,” says Hlekiwe Kachali, ETC Coordinator in the Pacific. She states this matter-of-factly as it ticks over to midnight in Fiji, from where she is already supporting up to 21 Pacific countries and territories in the response to COVID-19. “We’re responding remotely for both incidents, using existing in-country assets and solutions and adapting them to the response,” she explains.
In the immediate aftermath of the cyclone, communications were largely cut off on Vanuatu’s two largest islands of Santo and Malekula. The ETC Coordinator hit the ground running with emergency telecommunications preparedness and response planning alongside the national authorities and ETC personnel on the ground.
Hlekiwe is working to utilize ETC resources under the twin pressures of time and travel restrictions, yet she is handling it with the characteristic calm that underlines her response to all emergencies in the region – of which there are many. “We’ll look back at this lived experience and it will highlight that pre-committed capacities – in the right place – are critical, because disasters can happen at the same time!” she points out, already thinking ahead to lessons learned and the importance of the preparedness measures the ETC has been rolling out in the Pacific since 2016.
Preparing to respond to the next wave of emergency as Cyclone Harold approaches Fiji, Hlekiwe says, “If we stay ready, we won’t have to get ready.”