10 September 2017

Hurricano

Once, long ago, I was in the middle of a hurricane. It brewed itself near the Gilbert and Ellice Islands and then moved southwards across the South Pacific Ocean. I listened to Radio Fiji, gradually becoming aware that the hurricane was moving in our direction.

I was a VSO volunteer teacher, living in a sturdy little government house in the village of Motusa on the island of Rotuma - with my American Peace Corps friend Richard. I alerted him to the news. It seemed surreal to imagine that a hurricane was on its way when  the sun was shining and the coconut palms that fringed our island were hardly swaying in the slightest of sea breezes.

I had arrived on Rotuma only seven weeks before. It had taken three days to get there by boat from Suva which is the capital of Fiji,  Rotuma being the most northerly of Fiji's many islands.

It was as if I had arrived in paradise. Boys shinned up the palms to knock drinking nuts down as domesticated pigs frolicked in the crystal clear sea by the long white beach at Mofmanu. There were no tourists. Robert and Mojito brought us fresh paw paws and fish that they had speared on the edge of the reef. There was an aroma of roasted copra in the air and frangipani, hibiscus and orange blossom and always the sound of the ocean meeting the reef. 
The day before the hurricane struck, I learnt that it had acquired a name - Hurricane Bebe and now the Radio Fiji announcer was warning that she was likely to cross Rotuma. It was time to prepare. The weather was beginning to change and the calm ocean was starting to churn. We warned all of our neighbours to get ready. There were no telephones and most of them didn't possess radios. For decades Rotuma had avoided hurricanes and only the oldest islanders could dimly remember a similar event.

It was on the morning of October 22nd 1972 that the full fury of Bebe struck our village. The air was thick with driven rain and the wind roared like a mighty beast. We looked out of our window across the primary school field towards the ocean. Thank heavens for the coral reef. It was protecting us from mountainous waves. But as the strength of the wind reached its peak at around 130mph we saw rooftops flying - sheets of corrugated iron and planks of wood and woven palm thatches.

Our house was shaking on its concrete foundations and we feared that we would also lose our roof. Several villagers who had lost their houses rushed to our place for sanctuary. 

For an hour or so, it seemed that it would never end but then the hurricane began to subside. Soon we found ourselves in a deathly calm. The eye was passing over us. 

Richard grabbed his camera and we wandered out in the stillness. Many coconut palms had been uprooted or stripped of their leaves. The nearby methodist church was roofless as were virtually all the self-built houses in the village. This was no longer paradise. It was a scene of cruel devastation. 
We were in that silent eye for perhaps forty five minutes until the wind started to pick up again. But when it came back it was far less fierce than in the first assault.

Quite a few people were injured that day and a woman was killed in a village called Pepjei on the island's southern coast.

It was several days before any help arrived from Suva and weeks before a team of New Zealand soldiers arrived to build dozens of prefabricated new homes. In the meantime, people helped each other and began to pick up the pieces of their lives - both literal and metaphorical.
That's me at Rotuma High School after the hurricane.
All pictures by Richard J. Mehus (1947-2012)

35 comments:

  1. Our friend from Fiji would have been five years old. I must ask if he remembers the event.

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    1. After Rotuma, Bebe headed south and wreaked havoc in the Yasawa Islands. There's an entry about her in Wikipedia.

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  2. What a story. For a young person who had no experience with hurricanes is would have been a scary adventure. But just think it made you into a much stronger person. The wind couldn't blow you away.

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    1. That's why it's best not to go on a diet. Plenty of food gives you weight for stability.

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  3. Wow ... what an amazing and terrifying story. I've just looked at the satellite google view of Rotuma and it looks very tiny in the middle of the ocean. How did you decide to go there, or was your destination chosen for you?

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    1. It was chosen for me Jenny. When you are there it is as if that small island is the entire world.

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  4. Here in the southern hemisphere we call hurricanes, "cyclones". From November through to April is our cyclone season down this way. I've experienced a few and a while back wrote quite a lengthy post about Cyclone Joy that I went through when I was managing the little resort on Newry Island. I had 30 guests stranded over the Christmas1990. We've had a few devastating cyclones hit Queensland over the past few years...the last being Cyclone Debbie what caused heartache and damage in March earlier this year.

    They are not fun to be around. I do feel for the poor folk who were affected by Hurricane Harvey...and those in the Caribbean by Cyclone Irma. I hope Irma, as she crosses the coast later today weakens quickly and causes no further damage.

    Let's hope everyone remains safe and unharmed.

    I have a friend who lives in Oxford, Sumter County, Florida. We were chatting yesterday. She and her family have battened down, ready for the onslaught. It's not their first rodeo, either...but that counts for nothing when you've being belted by unimaginable gale force winds, and pelting rain.

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    1. Yes. Let's hope Irma's power reduces as she moves up the west coast of Florida. Caribbean hurricane/cyclone names are listed in alphabetical order. I wonder what they'll choose for the forthcoming letter "L"? Mmmm...I wonder.

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  5. A terrifying experience but what a story to tell. You certainly had some adventures when you were young.

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    1. Now I sit in an armchair drinking cocoa.

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  6. I have never experienced a hurricane/cyclone for which I am very grateful.

    Alphie

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    1. But it is also thrilling - to witness the power of Nature firsthand.

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  7. Were you scared YP? it must have been an awful situation to be in..or because of your youth did you find it exciting in a strange way?

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    1. You are right to guess that I found it exciting Libby. After all, we don't get many hurricanes in Yorkshire!

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  8. I always find the sound of strong wind a little bit frightening but i think it would be amazing to live through a cyclone/ hurricane. A smallish one

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    1. I shall never forget the weirdness of being in the eye of that hurricane.

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  9. Must be horrible. Surreal while it's going on - and such an awful mess to deal with afterwards... This one going on now, Irma, I find scarier than any I've heard of before, because this time I have a blogging friend and her husband on the west coast of Florida waiting for it... As always, it does make a difference when you know someone involved, rather than just watch news clips on TV.

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    1. I hope your blogging friend and her husband emerge from this well - alive with not too much damage to address.

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  10. These hurricanes are so awful but at least they've put the Korean news on the back burner for a while.
    Who needs nuclear wars when nature creates a similar thing.
    I feel for all of the people left homeless.
    Briony
    x

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    1. Yeah - it's funny that the Korea crisis has suddenly been shifted to the back burner. Maybe it wasn't a crisis after all.

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  11. Gripping reading. I think hurricanes, cyclones, and typhoons are all the same phenomena -- the names vary by where they occur in the world. Oh, one big difference is that in the Northern Hemisphere those big storms rotate counter-clockwise and in the Southern Hemisphere they rotate clockwise. Same thing happens to the water in toilet bowls. Take notes; you'll be tested later.

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  12. Next five names: Lee, Maria, Nate, Ophelia, Philippe. www.stormfax.com has all the names through the 2019 season.

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    1. And the one after than will probably be Hurricane Robert. That's sure to be a monster!

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  13. That's a scary tale to read as we sit here waiting for Irma

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    1. It was Irma that brought my hurricane experience to mind. I hope the big storm misses you in coastal Georgia. At the moment it seems the worst of Irma will be to the west of you.

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  14. Part of me would love to experience something so part of powerful nature, but the other part of me is thankful that I never will. What an experience for you as a a young man, though.

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    1. Thanks for understanding that ADDY. I had just had my nineteenth birthday. Sadly, in the months that followed, the island was no longer the tropical paradise I first encountered. There was much recovering to be done.

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  15. You had so many adventures when you were young! Including a hurricane...that was a surprise for me.

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    1. It was Irma that reminded me.

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  16. You gotta have something to tell the grandkids!
    I was going to ask if it should have been called a "cyclone" instead of a hurricane but I just scrolled up and read the comment from Lee. Funny thing, you asked what the hurricane next would be, the "L" name...is Lee!

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    1. That's gonna be one hell of a mean hurricane!

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  17. I have never experienced a hurricane/cyclone for which I am very grateful.

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  18. Wow! What an experience! And to go through it in such a remote place, at a time when communication with the "outside world" took far longer, must have been especially challenging.

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  19. I love the blog post, and you helped me make such a fun card with it!
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