On Tuesday I meet my niece Caitlin and her partner Tim at the airport. It’s spitting as they walk out of Customs. I take them to my place in Kolale, where I pick up a bag of clothes and all the fresh fruit and vegies from my fridge because we have accepted the kind invitation of my friends Matt and Abbie to stay at their house while Matt is away. Their house is on the other side of town. The rain sets in.
Thursday 3 April
It is still very wet. It hasn’t stopped raining since Tuesday. Caitlin and Tim drop me off at work, using the Old Mataniko Bridge, my main route to and from Point Cruz (Honiara’s CBD). A Special Board Meeting is scheduled for 9 am. In some ways this is the culmination of my time as a volunteer. At the last two Board meetings the crowded agenda precluded detailed assessment of the draft policies I have prepared. Because time is running out, they agreed to hold a Special Meeting to focus solely on policies. I am nervous about whether there will be a quorum, as a couple of members have sent apologies.
At 9 only two are present. By 10 however, there are four and it is agreed to go ahead. The rain is heavy and it’s hard to hold a discussion because of the noise on the tin roof. Despite this the meeting progresses well, the members are very engaged.
Usually Board meetings that go to lunch time include a catered lunch. I expect this to occur but hadn’t checked with Nancy, the boss. A morning tea of sweet biscuits was provided but no lunch. At close to 1 pm I exhort the members to keep going. One person is supposed to meet a child at lunchtime but the rain keeps her in our meeting.
At 1 pm the power goes out. This is not surprising – the rain is still very heavy and the wind picks up. We finish the meeting at about 1.45.
Because it was so wet I decide to forgo a late lunch and tidy up the meeting room instead. I also need to ensure my hand-written notes are safely stored because they are the only record of the meeting.
As I’m doing this a few very wet people start arriving at the office. I don’t know them. All the talk is in Pijin which I don’t fully understand but I glean that their nearby homes have been flooded. Soon I hear other things: that Chinatown is flooded, that the old bridge is under water, that it is broken, that homes and people have been swept away. My response is low key – none of these stories are confirmed and it is obvious that some people are distressed. I don’t want to stoke emotions any further by asking dumb questions. More adults and children arrive. One baby has been separated from its mother and she can’t be found.
Red Cross personnel, wearing fluoro vests, arrive. The Red Cross HQ is just down the road from my office, towards the river. I’m not aware at the time, but it is flooded. They ask us to count all the people present, in preparation for evacuating them to a nearby school. I count the males but it’s difficult – people keep arriving and leaving.
The soggy procession leaves at about 4. I inform Nancy that I will stay till dusk and ensure the office is secure. More people arrive including the family of our cleaner, Rosie – her husband and a gaggle of grandchildren. I understand they have left their home with everything “floating”. One of the adults has a transistor radio. A news bulletin confirms that the old Mataniko Bridge has been swept away and the new bridge (built in the 1980s) is closed.
Now I’m not sure what to do. This sounds serious. I get a call from the AVI office during which I am encouraged to go home if I don’t have a specific task to perform. My apartment is on this side of the river. Nancy returns – I ask her advice. She encourages me to go home. I contact Caitlin and Tim. They are on the other side of the river and the car has a flat battery. If need be they will book into commercial accommodation. I let them know that I won’t be joining them tonight. Still undecided, I walk next door to the SIDT building, where they have power because of their generator. Another volunteer, Annie, is there. She is stuck because her house is on the other side of the river and she intends to sleep on her office desk.
We look from the top story at flood debris on the road towards the river – the first time I’ve seen it. Annie says the intersection around the corner is still under water. I decide to try and walk home and, if I can get through, invite her to stay as I’ve got a spare bed. She agrees.
I return to the office and leave the laptop and my notes from the meeting in a desk drawer. I take my wallet, camera and umbrella. It’s close to 6 pm.
It is still windy and raining, though not as heavily as earlier. The intersection is indeed under water – calf deep. All Chinatown shops are closed. There are a lot of people about, including some young men calling out, being macho. There is a large crowd at the river’s edge where the old bridge used to be. I decide to walk over and take a photo. As I do a young man sees me and calls out to his mates. About 80 sets of eyes turn to look at me – a joke at my expense which I don’t understand. I keep going without meeting their eyes, snap off a shot of the pylons standing forlornly in the raging river, and turn and make my way home. The atmosphere feels a bit feral and I don’t want to hang around. Later I hear there was looting in Chinatown after the shops closed.
I am low on phone credit, and am relieved to see a small shop near the Honiara Hotel open and selling credit. I buy some. It’s also low on power, but with the blackout I can’t recharge. Over the next 36 hours I use it conservatively.
The umbrella is pretty useless in the rain but I angle it so it doesn’t blow inside out. My shoes are soaked already, having walked through the water. I pass a few people on the way to my house.
Inside, I text Annie and say it’s okay to come up. She responds saying she’ll pack up and be on her way. I tune my battery radio to SIBC and listen to the news. Incongruously, in between bulletins, jaunty reggae plays.
I tidy up the spare room. It’s dark now. Annie should be here. About half an hour after her first reply, she texts again to say she saw the other bridge was open and has now arrived at her house.
I don’t have much food, and I missed lunch. The only fresh item I have is one onion. I decide to save it till tomorrow. I make a meal out of toast, fried eggs and a tin of beans. The power is off but I have running water and gas. I have a battery operated lamp and a head torch.
I go to bed early, before 9, and sleep fitfully. There’s thunder and lightning and it pours all night.
I spend all of Friday in the dark apartment, except for a few hours in the afternoon when some Kiwi volunteers living nearby risk a visit and we go for a walk through Chinatown. On Saturday morning I hear on the radio that the bridge is open for foot traffic and bolt, joining Caitlin, Tim and Abbie at the house which has a generator and wi-fi.
Over the next few days I learn the extent of the disaster. All the rumours I heard on Thursday are true. The official death toll is over twenty. I won’t be surprised if it’s much higher. The damage to Honiara’s already parlous infrastructure is heavy. The loss of the bridge creates unbelievable traffic delays in and out of town. The water supply is severely compromised. I volunteer at the Red Cross, entering data from the evacuation centres.
By the middle of the next week, except for a couple of shops that remain closed and the different traffic flow, around Chinatown life looks normal on the surface. But 20% of the city’s population is in evacuation centres without proper water supplies or sanitation. Disease is a real concern.
As is usually the case, the people most affected by this event are the most vulnerable. People who live near the waterways are ‘squatters’ who come to the city from villages seeking work. They just set up house, there’s no administrative process. Now they have lost everything. It is difficult to see a solution to this situation.
I feel guilty for being privileged, for not suffering any real privation, for having options such as returning to Australia in a few weeks and looking forward to it.