Tropical Cyclone Pam: Why the Vanuatu death toll was so low

Tropical Cyclone Pam: Why the Vanuatu death toll was so low

Tropical Cyclone Pam: Why the Vanuatu death toll was so low

Updated 2 April 2015, 11:10 AEDT

Tropical Cyclone Pam was one of the worst cyclones on record but there were very few casualties.

Aid agencies have described Tropical Cyclone Pam as one of the worst disasters to ever hit the Pacific region.

Packing winds of up to 250 kilometres per hour, the category-five system caused widespread devastation in Vanuatu's southern provinces of Shefa and Tafea.

Around 75,000 people were left in need of emergency shelter, and 96 per cent of food crops were destroyed.

But remarkably, there were just 11 confirmed fatalities. Why so few? Many development experts agree it was due to a combination of traditional knowledge, improved communications technology and disaster preparedness.

Traditional building materials are lighter

Since people first settled in Vanuatu thousands of years ago, they have been dealing with cyclones. They know how to cope.

Most houses are constructed with traditional materials such as bamboo, local timber and pandanus for the roof.

What contributes to the low death toll is the fact that the materials are not so heavy.

Prof. Margaret Rodman, New York University

These materials can usually be sourced from a family's garden and can be relatively easily reconstructed.

"What contributes to the low death toll is the fact that the materials are not so heavy," Margaret Rodman, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at New York University in Toronto said.

"So you're not dealing with masonry falling on people."

Professor Rodman, author of Home in the Islands: Housing and Social Change in the Pacific, said the traditional communal houses, nakamals, which are common throughout the island nation, are designed to withstand the pressure of a cyclone.

"The roofs come down to the ground, which means the hurricane winds cannot get under the roof and lift it off."

Dan McGarry, chief technologist at the Port Vila-based think-tank Pacific Institute of Public Policy, agreed.

"They're lashed together rather than nailed together and that gives the building the ability to flex," he said.

"The walls and roofing materials are somewhat porous so they don't create these huge pressure differences that you see in modern structures."

SMS warning system 'saved lives'

For the first time, Vanuatu used an SMS warning system to alert people of the approaching cyclone.

Text messages, containing condensed versions of warnings from the national meteorology service, were sent every three hours as the cyclone intensified.

The messages were then sent hourly as the cyclone came closer to making landfall.

For many in the outer islands, it was their only way of knowing where the cyclone was.

Technical problems at the national broadcaster meant emergency radio bulletins were only reaching some of Vanuatu's 65 inhabited islands.

Kiery Manassah, a spokesman for the prime minister's office, said he had no doubt the messages had saved lives.

"I had the opportunity to go to some of the islands that were affected. I asked them about how they got the information and most of them, especially in Shefa and outer islands, said they got the information from the SMS alerts," he said.

Mr Manassah said the technology would likely be used for future disasters.

"Penetration of mobile phones in Vanuatu is quite high, I would estimate almost 100 per cent, probably between 80 and 90 per cent of people, have access to mobile phones so it's a very useful means of communicating critical information to people."

Communities followed preventative measures

The Red Cross in Vanuatu spends a lot of time training people in the community to prepare for cyclones.

They teach people techniques to secure houses, prepare food gardens and store emergency food.

They also explain how to develop evacuation plans and identify those in the community most at risk during a time of disaster.

A team of community volunteers are also taught how to interpret warnings from the national weather bureau.

"Most of the communities said they followed preventative measures," Augustine Garae, disaster management coordinator for the Vanuatu Red Cross, said.

"With some of traditional knowledge, that basically saved their lives."