Cyclone Uma batters Radio Vanuatu

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.

Cyclone Uma

Brodkas Haos

In the days after Cyclone Uma ravaged Vanuatu in February 1987, the nation’s only radio station was silent. Nobody knew when it would return. At the transmission site, masts lay on the ground. The extent of the damage to short-wave and medium wave transmitters was unknown. 

Worst of all, however, was the shambles at Radio Vanuatu headquarters in the capital town, Port Vila. The broadcasting center – just seven years old – had no roof. Rain water that continued to accumulate on the exposed ceiling was cascading into offices and studios. 

As staff members struggled to arrange a temporary roof, they had ample cause to feel discouraged. What had gone wrong? Why were they fighting to save a building they had been assured was cyclone-proof?

Bob Makin has reflected on the catastrophe that hit Radio Vanuatu ten years ago. 

Back then, he managed the radio station as the country’s Director of Media Services. Now he works for the Pacific Islands Broadcasting Association (PIBA), located only a few meters from the restored Radio Vanuatu building.

Makin believes Cyclone Uma, exposed major flaws in the building known as Brodkas Haos (a translation of “broadcast house” into Bislama, the local pidgin English). He feels those flaws could have caused “horrendous injury” to his staff.

Combined with damage at the transmitter site, the problems at Brodkas Haos made it impossible to get back on the air quickly. As a result, the rest of the country had to learn of damage to Port Vila from overseas radio services. 

Nestled into a hillside overlooking a stunningly beautiful harbor, Brodkas Haos opened in 1980, the same year that Vanuatu, formerly known as the New Hebrides, gained independence from Britain and France. 

Brodkas House was part of an Australian aid project to upgrade Vanuatu’s radio system. Australian firms designed the building and managed its construction.

Costing the equivalent of US $750,000, the radio headquarters were supposed to be built to standards adopted in Australia following Cyclone Tracy, a storm which killed 66 people and destroyed 6,000 houses in the city of Darwin on Christmas Day 1974. 

Brodkas Haos also incorporated a number of features requested by Radio Vanuatu. On the main floor of the 45 meter by 30 meter building, studios and offices were arranged around a central courtyard open to the sky. A lower level, half as large, housed the news department. 

There were double glazed windows facing the harbor, enabling staff to monitor ship movements and other harbor events. Sensibly, given the high risk of tropical cyclones, there were few windows on the other outside walls. All the outside windows were fitted with aluminium shutters. 

In the courtyard, double-glazed windows allowed visitors to watch broadcasters at work in the studios. These windows – being sheltered from the wind – did not have shutters. 

Perhaps the most unusual feature of the building was its curved and corrugated roof, reminiscent of an army Quonset (or Nissen) hut.

Catastrophe strikes

What Makin calls “Radio Vanuatu’s worst day” was actually a Saturday night. Cyclone Uma reached Port Vila in the late evening of February 7th, 1987. Winds swept up the main ship channel and across the small harbor toward the town center. 

Inside Brodkas Haos, about fifty people waited for the cyclone to arrive. Some of the Radio Vanuatu staff had brought their families, believing they would be safer there than in their homes, many of which were mere shanties built of corrugated iron. 

There was another reason for being there, of course: the national radio service was on full alert for a “hariken” (hurricane or cyclone). Speaking in the three official languages – Bislama, English and French – Radio Vanuatu announcers broadcast news of the storm’s progress. As usual, the program was simulcast on medium wave, short-wave, and to the local Port Vila area on FM. 

Around 11pm, Uma came ashore with winds gusting to 150 knots (280 kilometers per hour). Shutters on the outside windows of Brodkas Haos disappeared one after another, torn from their sockets, until half of them were gone.

The winds eased as the eye of the storm passed over Port Vila, but soon rose again to hurricane force. 

In the Producers’ Room, a small group of staff worried about the unprotected courtyard windows and decided to move everyone into a windowless studio. Minutes later, as atmospheric pressure rose, the courtyard windows imploded, propelling shards of glass into the building. 

Despite the destruction occurring in the darkness throughout Port Vila, Radio Vanuatu was still on the air. When the town’s power supply was knocked out, the radio station switched to an emergency generator. 

Losing battle

The staff did their utmost, but Brodkas Haos was about to lose the battle against Cyclone Uma. 

As Makin recalled: “We were able to broadcast the sound of the roof coming off as, sheet by sheet, the iron was torn from the purlins.”

Those heavy sheets of iron were later discovered hundreds of meters away. 

Even without a roof, the station remained on the air. Brodkas Haos still had a strong concrete ceiling. Unfortunately, the building’s wiring had been routed over the ceiling, and there were holes everywhere so that cables could pass into the rooms below. 

“We had to go off the air when the flooding from the holes became a major hazard,” Makin said. “Water was pouring out of ceiling fans and the flashing ‘On Air’ signs were like fountains. Since there was little we could report, with no communications from anywhere, and nothing to document except Radio Vanuatu’s worst day, we knew it was time to stop.”

It was three o’clock Sunday morning. The full fury of Cyclone Uma had lasted four hours. 

“The short-wave and medium wave transmitters probably went off the air before we [in the studio] did,” said Makin. “I think FM stayed on until we closed it, which was OK for the town area.”

Repairs difficult

As Cyclone Uma moved back out to sea, it left 4,000 flattened houses in Port Vila. At least 90 per cent of the town’s buildings had been damaged. 

Brodkas Haos was still standing, but the interior was awash, a clear result of the building’s design. 

“As different levels of ceiling were involved, the exterior and internal walls were often higher than the ceiling they enclosed,” said Makin. 

“When the roof was gone, the building was topped by a series of rectangular catchment areas. Tons of rain poured through the holes to flood the studios and offices spectacularly.” 

Emergency repairs were extremely difficult too. 

“The irregular nature of the timber frame which had held the curved roof made it impossible to use plastic sheeting as temporary water-proofing. Flooding continued over the weeks that followed,” Makin said. 

One by one, the problems at Brodkas Haos have been tackled: 

First, a simple roof of corrugated iron was erected temporarily. Eventually the roof was rebuilt to the original curved shape, but with better strapping.

Second, the top of the concrete ceiling was covered with bitumen, which was contoured so that water can drain to special outlets leading away from the building. 

Third, the holes in the ceiling, where wiring passes into the rooms below, have been sealed. 

Finally, all outside windows were fitted with what Makin described as “good old-fashioned planking shutters which slip into metal brackets.” These shutters have been used successfully during recent cyclones. 

The courtyard windows still do not have shutters, but there is a policy to leave them ajar during a cyclone, to allow the equalization of pressure.

The Australians paid for the repairs, and finally closed the file on the Radio Vanuatu project in 1996, sixteen years after the building was opened. 

Radio Vanuatu is fortunate in at least one way. Its hilltop location means it cannot be inundated by the monstrous seas and extremely high tides that accompany a cyclone. 

In Western Samoa, the state owned radio station is only meters from the sea shore. Cyclone Val flooded the building and destroyed most of the studio equipment in 1992. Although the station is still in the same location, one of its two studios is now in a trailer which can be disconnected from the building and towed to higher ground. The medium wave transmitters, also located near the seashore, are in a new building a few meters above ground. 

Radio Vanuatu has taken greater precautions with its transmitters too. “They are properly housed in a building that should be cyclone proof,” said Makin. “Time and winds will tell.” 

* First published 23 July 1997 in the International Edition of Radio World.