Cyclone recovery in the Pacific

Cyclone Pam’s devastation of Vanuatu provided a real-time example of the relevance of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk as it was adopted at the Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, in Japan, almost six months ago.

One senior business executive was at Auckland Airport on his way to the World Conference – preparing to advocate the merits of disaster resilience to his fellow executives – when news of the disaster prompted him to ditch his talking points, switch his ticket, and dash to guide his company’s recovery on the ground in Vanuatu.

Within 48 hours, instead of speaking to delegates in Sendai, the Chairman of the Board of Directors Digicel Samoa, Pepe Christian Fruean, was in Vanuatu’s capital Port Vila as part of the telecommunications company’s emergency deployment.

Digicel’s recovery plan aimed to quickly repair its operations and, in so doing, restore a vital communications service to the devastated country. “Digicel is widely represented within the corridor of the Pacific & Caribbean which are highly susceptible to natural hazards,” Fruean said.

“As a result Digicel has accumulated significant institutional knowledge on disaster risk management. The company shares this so that individual local operations can fine tune plans to get back to ‘business as usual’ quickly after a disaster.

“The key page of the whole business continuity plan is the one that assigns responsibility for preparedness tasks by functional area, clearly identifying who is responsible to deliver individual parts of the plan.

“When our response team arrived (in Vanuatu), only 13% of the population had access to communications on our network. Within five days we achieved 87% population network coverage. Within one month we achieved 91% population network coverage.

“One of our biggest towers – 60 metres high – on the island of Erromango linking the major inhabited island of Tanna had been bent over backwards by the sheer force of the Tropical Cyclone Pam.”

A regional effort swung into action involving various personnel, supplies and suppliers. The company chartered planes and helicopters from the Gold Coast (near Brisbane), the Papua New Guinea resources sector and a private fleet from nearby Fiji and New Caledonia. They quickly followed military transporters from Australia and New Zealand into the airport at Port Villa.

The logistical challenge was enormous. Vanuatu’s population of 267,000 is dispersed over 65 inhabited islands (out of a total of 83) that stretch 795 km north to south across the ocean.

Fruean said lessons from past disasters helped their recovery in Vanuatu: “(In Samoa) we had the tsunami in 2009 and Cyclone Evan (which also had a significant impact on Fiji) in 2012 and each one of them forced us to rethink our approach to disaster risk management.

“In 2009 the earthquake and subsequent tsunami revealed the importance of adhering to international engineering standards for civil construction! Cyclone Evan revealed a new ‘flood’ risk to the Apia area (Samoa’s capital city), which many businesses had never experienced hence where significantly underprepared.”

This extensive experience has converted Fruean into a champion for disaster resilience on the Samoan business circuit. “Here most businesses are small. Even the biggest can only be classed as ‘medium-sized’. We have to be realistic and pragmatic,” he said.

With cyclone season approaching, Fruean plans to address the next monthly meeting of the Chamber of Commerce on the importance of disaster resilience.

“After the original ‘natural’ disaster you get a secondary disaster which I would call the ‘economic downturn disaster’, which sees local businesses – such as the ‘mom and pop stores’ – close down and never reopen,”  Fruean said.

“They take such a hit and are directly impacted by a contraction of the local economy as a result of the disaster. Staff previously employed by these smaller businesses are forced to try to rebuild their families and communities without the benefit of the weekly income their jobs provided.

“The key question is ‘how do you get local businesses up and running and trading quickly again?’ to stimulate the struggling economy and provide employment income to the working population.”

The Samoa Government’s National Disaster Management Office, under the leadership of Filomena Nelson, has reached out to businesses and other key sectors as part of its coordinated effort to strengthen national resilience. UNISDR is set to support these efforts through its Pacific Office and Global Education and Training Institute, in Incheon, Republic of Korea.

The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, which was adopted at the World Conference, highlights the important role of the private sector to build disaster resilience. Several top business executives were at the World Conference in support of the Sendai Framework.