It was just after 7am and raining as Pacific Princess slipped almost silently into the little bay on the east coast of Espiritu Santo island. For a few moments it was possible to imagine we had taken Vanuatu’s largest island by surprise. There were no tugboats to escort us or dancers in traditional costume waiting to perform for the cameras.
Out of the thick bush, smoke from a dozen small fires rose to mingle with the grey cloud that clung to a long forested ridge. In the misty distance, a half dozen people fished from a trio of canoes.
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Every November, as the trade winds falter, another tropical cyclone season begins in the South Pacific. For at least six months, until the southeasterlies return in April or May, areas of low pressure develop continually over warm ocean water. In a few cases they generate clockwise spirals of wind and develop into full-blown tropical cyclones.
Although cyclones can be identified and tracked fairly well these days, there is only so much one can do to prepare for winds of 200 kilometers per hour, torrential rain, and flooding that results from abnormally high tides.
During the 1996-97 season, Cyclone Gavin killed 18 people in Fiji. Cyclone Hina destroyed a seawall in Tuvalu and then traveled 1,500 kilometers to Tonga where it tore the roof off the parliament building. And then there was Justin, the cyclone that refused to die. After hammering Papua New Guinea for more than a week, killing 28, it moved across the Coral Sea, sinking a yacht with the loss of all five crew. Three weeks after claiming its first victims, Justin spent the last of its energy on the northeast coast of Australia, moved inland, and faded away.
It was a relatively peaceful cyclone season in Vanuatu, a group of 82 islands that are home to 140,000 people in the southwestern Pacific. But ten years ago Vanuatu suffered one of the worst cyclones on record, a storm which killed 45, and put the national radio service to the ultimate test.