Disasters, Adrenaline and Baseball

I remember the first time I climbed into the driver’s seat of a Red Cross truck. I was living in Fiji and was headed out on a field visit. I felt like Penelope Cruz when she played a UN doctor in Africa on a mission to save the world from some sort of contagion. That truck took me to people and places during that time that grieved me, formed me, changed me. While being mum to little kids and attending an ex-pat’s recipe group, I became hooked on the chaos of development work. It was a defining period in my life.

I’m told my temperament suits this kind of work, relatively calm and people oriented. Although I will admit to enjoying the drama, not in an O.M.G sort of way, I love the energy that is created when people go into overdrive to respond to a desperate situation. Sort of like my ‘day job’ agency this week on hearing that the Pacific, Vanuatu in particular, had been battered by category 5 cyclone ‘Pam’.

What a mumsy, 1950’s name for a cyclone. I would have called it Devil’s Spawn or as they spoke about it in Port Vila this week, The Monster.

I didn’t sleep well the night before it hit. I manage our Vanuatu program and had been in touch with our local team to hear how they would stay safe as headlines like ‘worst cyclone to ever hit the Pacific’, ‘bigger than Katrina’ were doing the rounds on the internet. I had just returned from a visit to one of the outer islands the week before and felt sick at the thought of water’s edge schools, beautiful children and village houses with thatched roofing. How could they possibly survive something like this? 6.30am came and I called and called. Despite the telecommunications blackout, eventually I got through, they were distressed and shaken but safe. Uncertain of the state of their extended team and the rest of their country, but ok. I made plans to get there.

One of the extremely unglamorous parts of this job is the sometimes debilitating amount of reporting and paperwork that needs doing. This requires a whole other sort of temperament. I hit the little sleep, delirious, teary, giggles, inappropriate comments stage as the weekend and following days were spent in front of my laptop. We were (and still are) in constant contact with other agencies; daily roll calls, is everyone accounted for on the ground, what have you heard, when will the airport be open? Plans were made for collaborating in the areas we work.  Daily updates from Vanuatu’s Disaster Management Office.

On Monday night I went to parent teacher night and tried really hard not to be that person who is always on the phone answering emails. I responded to requests from home for coconut water with dinner. My boss walked in to the office with fluro pink cardboard one afternoon. His daughter needed urgent year 7 science project assistance. We carry heaviness in crises yet need to be able to carry it lightly. Our team in Vanuatu needed some of our normal, not the weight of our stress.

The airport reopened for commercial flights though they were limited and snapped up quickly. When we stopped in Fiji enroute to Port Vila, (this is like saying, when we stopped in Brisbane enroute to Adelaide) I bought them 10 blocks of chocolate.

Our organisation’s Disaster Relief Officer travelled with me and we fielded radio interviews at Nadi airport, ramping up into the surreal, particularly after a 3.30am start. Our flight was filled with Ni-Vans returning home, technicians being sent to help repair the power grid and aid workers.

When we arrived in Vanuatu, the airport directed the pilot to go into a holding pattern for about 20mins as the runway was crowded with military planes carrying relief. We all craned our necks to get an aerial view of the main island of Efate, it was bare. We ended up having to land on a nearby island and wait (not one of my strengths). The pilot told us that we would have to return to Nadi and my already rapidly beating heart sank. At the last minute, in darkness by now, we were given the all clear to land in Port Vila. It was pitch black except for the fires burning debris, and the car headlights illuminating the runway.

We walked onto the tarmac and saw the aid planes and crates and crates of relief. The air was thick with smoke making it hard to breathe, I thought of all the people that would develop respiratory conditions. Three of our local team picked us up and we drove through the now unrecognizable streets to find a place to stay. A few beaten up hotels with generators were operating with limited water and whatever food had been in the kitchen at the time the cyclone hit. These were already full. It was quite disconcerting to drive up to a motel building with a damaged roof, trees down and broken sign strewn across the entrance and say yes, let’s stay here. The night was very dark and eerie with the curfew in place but by some telecommunications miracle, there were pockets of Port Vila with wifi. We pulled up some plastic chairs and talked with our partners until late.  

My adrenaline was running high and I kicked into a gear I didn’t know I had. We talked that night and the next few days about stages of recovery and ways of coping. We talked about people still unaccounted for, one of these people, a woman we work closely with on our gender program, walked into the office during a meeting and I burst into tears. We kept going. We talked about strategy and overwhelm. We tried to figure out how this small team, some who had lost homes and were trying to just get through the day, would be able to cope with the hoards of people wanting to come and help, all with different agendas and ways they think help should come. The reality is nobody can know this yet.

We also still don’t know the scale of the damage or the impact on the people in our partners’ network across all Vanuatu. We are not likely to for some time, it will take many months and years for this tiny nation to recover. 

We drove around the city and I was speechless, not a single street had been left untouched. Enormous trees uprooted and laying across homes and cars. We visited evacuation centres and heard people’s stories of homes and schools destroyed, friends and family hurt, sheltering in churches, fear and distress at what they’d been through.

Sanitation was a problem before the cyclone, after the fact in these centres, there are already outbreaks of skin diseases and diarrhoea as a result of drinking dirty water and inadequate sanitation. There is very little food.

I spent one afternoon at the office of another NGO where I met some colleagues and we called into a teleconference in Sydney. I watched their operations room in action. Maps and daily updates covered the walls; cords to chargers, computers and gadgets creating all kinds of OHS hazards. Sweat dripping from harried faces and tags around every neck, giving them permission to manage their evacuation centres and drive after curfew. 

The International Aid community is a fascinating organism in this setting. Like disasters, it’s something most people only experience through the lens of a movie. I counted 22 agencies with corresponding branded t-shirts. There was a media circus converging on the Disaster Management Office when I visited with our partners. It was becoming tent city, big name NGOs were setting up on the lawn.

An aid response is a frenetic process, a whirlwind of logistics and high drama. I imagine certain people for whom disasters are a job saying ‘we got one!’ in the manner of Ghostbusters and grabbing their gear. I was very encouraged to see the Vanuatu Government calling the shots and coordinating the efforts, no renegade heroes here.

I had taken my own water, a bag of nuts and muesli bars, but I hardly ate. I didn’t really sleep. Only a week in, I am still managing the sheer volume of work on top of my normal load and tears are coming at odd moments. I feel a duty of care to our partners and want to help them manage this crisis which has so very many layers. 

But by Friday night I needed to be home for my son’s baseball grand final. We stood and cheered him on in the rain while I shivered and became aware that I was quite sunburnt. My daughter is in ‘tech’ week getting ready for an important musical while juggling HSC assessments. I need to be present with them and while empathy is something we value highly, this isn’t their burden to bear. 

And that is the nature of life is it not? We traverse the highs and lows, the catastrophic and euphoric, the traumatic and the mundane – sometimes in the course of a day. Maturity and true strength is doing this well. I am still on this journey.

I have seen extraordinary resilience in people this week, that we as humans can be gracious in suffering is one of the great mysteries of the heart. #withVanuatu


Jane Kennedy – Volunteer Coordinator ‘a Girl & her world’

*Feature pic belongs to UnitingWorld, my ‘day job’ agency. I snapped these girls just outside the city, “there was a bigfela storm, we’re just drying our clothes on the roof’” UnitingWorld is an accredited relief and development agency and we currently have an appeal open for Vanuatu www.unitingworld.org.au

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