Islanders' miracle survival
By Staff reporters
04jan03

MORE than a thousand islanders have miraculously survived the fierce cyclone that flattened their remote South Pacific home, by fleeing to high-country hideaways that have protected their people for generations.

Tikopia islanders told their amazing tale of endurance for the first time when a helicopter chartered by The Weekend Australian yesterday made the first direct contact since Cyclone Zoe smashed into the island early on Sunday morning.

Overjoyed locals rushed to welcome photographer Geoff Mackley when he landed on the eastern Solomon Islands outpost yesterday, bringing with him supplies, including packaged food, from neighbouring Vanuatu.

"The whole way there I thought I would see hundreds of dead and festering bodies, but instead we were just overwhelmed with people running toward the plane," Mackley exclusively told The Weekend Australian.

"Every single person was alive and there they were, standing in front of me," said the storm-chasing photographer.

The fruit villagers usually eat was ruined by the storm and their last water supply was contaminated by salt water and only available at low tide.

"They are collecting water from green coconuts, but obviously that's not very good for them," Mr Mackley said. "They used communal toilets which were basically holes in the ground, so now there's a risk of disease."

However, it is not known whether other islanders caught in Cyclone Zoe's path were as fortunate. Neighbouring Vanuatu said yeterday it still had no word from 600 residents of Mota Lava island.

A French navy helicopter was yesterday dispatched there from the Vanuatu capital, Port Vila, to assess damage.

"Pictures from the air show problems with rising sea levels and some villages have been washed out," said Vanuatu Foreign Affairs Department spokesman Yvon Basil.

The Tikopians, who are still waiting for emergency aid to arrive from the Solomons capital, Honiara, yesterday criticised Australian officials for suggesting their lives had returned to normal after the cyclone.

The islanders told Mackley their homes and crops were completely destroyed and they would not be able to grow all the food they needed for at least the next three years.

They were dismayed an RAAF Orion aircraft had not dropped food and water when it flew a surveillance mission over Tikopia on Wednesday night.

The islanders explained to Mackley they had survived Zoe by fleeing to the high country along paths Tikopians have used for centuries during cyclone emergencies to shelter in mountain caves from 370km/h winds and gigantic waves sweeping the low-lying areas of the island.

As The Australian revealed yesterday rescue efforts have been delayed by Solomon Islands police, who demanded "allowances" of $1250 each before they would crew an Australian-funded patrol boat carrying emergency supplies, aid workers and a medical team.

The patrol boat left Honiara yesterday, but is unlikely to reach the 1300 inhabitants of Tikopia and neighbouring Anuta until tomorrow. Last-minute negotiations were under way last night in Honiara for the Isabella, a vessel chartered by Solomons authorities, to be dispatched after the Australian and New Zealand high commissions stepped in to speed up the rescue efforts.

At the Honiara wharves last night, James Teara was elated when The Australian told him there had been no loss of life on his island.

"Praise God," he said, rubbing the arm of his seven-year-old son, Oliver. For five days he had no idea how his wife, four other children and mother had fared. Father and son were settling down among the rows of water bottles aboard the Isabella, which was expected to leave about midnight.

The Isabella was refuelled last night after intensive efforts by the Solomon Islands National Disaster Council and the Australian and New Zealand high commissions to overcome problems with refuelling and payment to the shipping company.

The Solomon opposition yesterday slammed the Kemakeza Government's slow response to the cyclone as "inhumane". "What this Government is good at is paying out compensation and extra allowances," senior opposition member John Garo said.

"People are saying the Australian Government should have responded faster, but they did respond as soon as they were requested. What about the Solomon Islands' Government? The police issue did contribute to the delay, but whose fault is that?" Mr Garo said.

New Zealand would conduct a review of the way the crisis was handled, Foreign Minister Phil Goff said.

"When we have met the immediate needs of the people that have been devastated by this cyclone, we'll want to look back and say is there a way in which we could have responded more quickly," he said.

The Australian

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