Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Cyclone Pam

From Wikipedia
This is an edited excerpt from one of my letters home - illustrated with a few photos found online.  When I originally wrote home about this I got a few of the details of the story about the phone call wrong...(I thought the missionaries called the Mission president, but apparently it was the other way around.  Also, I originally had named the wrong mission president. )  I'm posting here to relay the story as accurately as possible.

To learn more about this storm and its impact, you can see updates, videos and photos of Cyclone Pam from New Zealand Herald at

The  "official" death toll of this storm has fluctuated.  It started out in the mid 20's, then was reduced to  11.  Since then, others have died from the ongoing impact from the storm.  The economic destruction is massive.   People's lives have been hit hard.  But these are a resilient people and many have strong faith.   They are picking up the pieces.

The storm just skirted the edges of New Zealand, but it really hit Vanuatu HARD.   Once you get outside of the capital city on the main island where there are more concrete block structures, in the rural areas near 90% of the homes (which are mainly made of native materials)  have been wiped out.  Worse yet, the crops, which provide both basic food source and what little income people of the island have, were almost entirely destroyed.   The power, water system and communication systems were all flattened.  The islands of Vanuatu were devastated by this storm. 

Our friend, Elder Gary Winters had been there just a few months ago, and described that previous visit as being to a lush tropical place of beauty.  This time what he found was heartbreaking when he saw how extensive the damage was.  From the plane it looked sort of like an American winter - there were no leaves on most of the trees and everything was brown.  When he hit the ground the full scope of what the storm did was extreme .
There was debris everywhere.  Any place that had real glass windows now had shattered shards.   Huge banyon trees were upended and pieces of corrugated metal blown from roofs were impaled into buildings or the ground miles away.  The streets were a hodge podge of scraps of people’s lives with bits of clothing, cooking pots, broken tools and everything else they had owned scattered  haphazardly around. 
(Photo of damage in Vanuatu taken 17 Mar 2015 - Getty Images by Dave Hunt)
 Despite all the chaos, Gary was pleased to report the people were hard at work already rebuilding.   No one was sitting around waiting for rescue or a hand out.  They were working together, helping their neighbors, picking up the scattered bits of their lives.
At night there were hundreds of people being housed in our various chapels.  But during the day they were out clearing away debris and cobbling together new shelters.   They were picking up any food stuffs they could find.  They were helping one another.   He did not get a sense of a people who were traumatized by their losses.   This storm was not their first rodeo.   They know how to pick up the pieces and go on. 

The church is working with the government, other faiths and local NGO’s  to get clean water,  food, tarps and building materials distributed where ever it is most needed.  Members all over the Pacific are working together to package supply boxes to load on the boats and planes to send to our brothers and sisters of the islands of Vanuatu.    Humanitarian Aid funds donated throughout the world are being used  for everything from chainsaws for clearing the downed trees to supplies to replant the crops to sustain them long term.

The Phone Call:
One of the many powerful stories that came out of the storm was relayed by Mission President Larry Brewer.  It was later shared at a devotional  for the Pacific Area Office, which is where I heard the story.  After the storm,  President Brewer made several calls  trying to determine the safety of the  missionaries who were assigned in various places, including some pretty remote islands.  Vanuatu is made up of 85 separate islands, some quite small and only 65 of those populated.   One of the remote islands is called Tanna, and there were 11 missionaries there: 4 sisters and 7 young elders.  No one knew the status of those missionaries since there was no way to communicate.  The power was out, so even if there had been cell coverage they would have no way to charge their phones.  With cell towers destroyed, communication was not possible.   

Parents from all over were freaking out,  wanting to know if their sons and daughters were safe.   All of us here in the Pacific were asked to pray for these missionaries and everyone was on pins and needles waiting to get word.  Seeing work crews in the area where he was laboring to  raise communications as quickly as possible, President Brewer continued to try calling the Tanna missionaries, not knowing what else to do.  Finally, much to his surprise, the call connected.    The connection only lasted a very short time, but it was long enough for President Brewer to be assured that all the missionaries where safe and together.  President Brewer was also able to tell them to meet at the airport the following morning for an evacuation plane.  Then the phone went dead.  President Brewer tried calling back, but no other connections went through.  Just that one very brief phone call was enough, though, to put worried minds at ease.

When President Brewer saw one of the communications crews working to fix cell towers there in Port Vila, he thanked one of the techs for getting the communications back up to Tanna.  The tech replied:  “we haven’t gotten there yet.  There is no way to communicate with Tanna.”   President Brewer assured him that he had been able to make a brief call that very day.  The tech insisted this was impossible.   There was no way a cell phone could connect with no tower. But the call DID go through.   Frantic families who were praying with all their might got the reassurance they needed.  The missionaries were alerted to the plane on its way so they could be there to meet it, bringing them back to the safety of the mission home.  This is just one of many stories that have shown us all that God is watching out for us all and that prayers are heard and answered.   Faith is a powerful thing.

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