By Mark Michael

The Anglican Diocese of Vanuatu and New Caledonia in the South Pacific has set up an emergency operations center in Luganville, the largest town on Vanatu’s island of Espiritu Santo, where approximately 90 percent of residents are homeless in the wake of a devastating cyclone. The Red Cross has described the situation as “catastrophic.”

Diocesan Bishop James Tama wrote in an April 10 pastoral letter, “Tropical Cyclone Harold has wreaked havoc upon our communities in Santo with over 500 households completely destroyed and others in dire need of repairs and renovation. Our villages have been left without water [or] communication, and food shortages are expected in the coming weeks. Over 5,000 people are homeless.”

The cyclone, which formed over Eastern Papua New Guinea on April 1, moved slowly southeast across the Pacific, passing over the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji, and Tonga, before dying down 10 days later. It reached Category 5 strength just before striking Espiritu Santo, the largest island in the archipelago of Vanuatu, a nation whose 272,000 people are dispersed across 61 inhabited islands. Cyclone Harold brought winds gusting up to 170 miles per hour and 10 to 18 inches of rain to Espiritu Santo, and was only the second category 5 cyclone in the nation’s history.

Luganville, which is Vanuatu’s second-largest town, was suffering from water shortages, and relief efforts were hampered by flooded roadways and a nationwide COVID-19 lockdown. Nearby, less-populated islands of Pentecost and Malo were even more severely impacted, with 68 percent of structures on Pentecost Island damaged by the cyclone.

Bishop Tama said that in additional to dispensing direct aid, the diocese was organizing teams in each affected parish to clear debris, and that clergy were serving as members of widely deployed health emergency teams who were offering spiritual consolation and information about preventing the spread of COVID-19. The Diocese of Vanuatu and New Caledonia is part of the Anglican Church in Melanesia, whose other eight dioceses are based in the nearby Solomon Islands.

These local efforts are especially important because Vanuatu, one of the world’s only nations without any coronavirus cases, has banned the deployment of foreign aid workers into the affected regions. Civic officials fear that the nation’s underdeveloped health care infrastructure would be incapable of managing an outbreak of the virus. The governments of Australia, New Zealand, and China have sent relief supplies, which are being quarantined for three days and thoroughly disinfected before being shipped to the worst-hit regions. The United Nations has also released $2.5 million from its emergency assistance fund.

“I call on all partners of the Anglican Church and the Anglican Community at large to assist us in this time of great need,” Bishop Tama wrote. “So that we may rebuild, we may build back our communities and we may resume the mission of the church.” The Anglican Alliance, the Anglican Communion’s international relief and development agency, has been helping to coordinate the response from different provinces.

Tama, who delayed the diocese’s celebration of Easter for a week because of the disaster, also expressed confidence in God’s sustaining power in the current crisis, writing: “The trees and gardens may be destroyed, but our spirit remains intact. Our homes and families may be struggling but our faith and our Church remain standing. We are united as a church and a people. We have seen this magnitude of devastation before and we have recovered. We will do it again.”