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After nearly 20 years in the Police, I shifted my skills and knowledge from my home in Northland to the north Pacific, for a four-month contract as a Disaster Management Officer with Red Cross.
I was told that the north Pacific was quiet – "don’t worry, nothing much happens up there," they said!
Thirteen flights later – yes, thirteen flights – I arrived in Majuro from Kaitaia.
I’m a seasoned traveller and have lived in the Pacific since I was a small child, so I knew the region well enough, but the north Pacific, what did I know about that, how was it different?
So there I was – in the Marshall Islands, what did I already know about ‘the Marshalls’ – only what google had told me. Which actually is quite limited.
On an average sized world map or globe, Micronesia is barely visible. It’s made up of many small atolls, which in turn are made up of many individual islets. Atolls are extinct underwater volcanoes where coral has grown around the ring on top of the crater – eventually breaking the ocean surface and from there ‘life’ has sprung!
My new home was Majuro, the main island and capital city of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, approximately 30 miles long and averages just 200 metres wide, with a population about 27,000. It has one road that runs the length of Majuro down the ‘middle’ – but pretty much wherever you are the ocean can be seen on both sides of the road.
The first Saturday night after I arrived in Majuro I was balancing on the kitchen bench trying to get internet coverage and I noticed an urgently flagged email.
A massive storm had formed and was heading towards parts of the Federated States of Micronesia in about 24 hours – my new patch!
My unpacking was put on hold and I spent the night watching weather reports and receiving updates from my new colleagues across the Pacific. Within 48 hours I was back at the airport and on my way to FSM.
By the time I landed, Typhoon Maysak was now a category five Super Typhoon. It had struck the FSM state of Chuuk causing several deaths, massive infrastructure and housing damage, and displacing a huge percentage of the states’ population. It had affected water supplies, food supplies, education and health.
Because of the vastness of ocean area FSM is spread over, Typhoon Maysak had not yet finished wreaking havoc and she was expected to hit and cause even more destruction in the remote and low-lying state of Yap. Ironically it was now April 1st – but this was no joke!
My first month on the job was spent getting information and updates, sorting emergency supplies for people in need: tarpaulin’s for shelter, blankets, cooking sets, all as I digested the vastness of the area I was dealing with and the lack of transport ability to get the much-needed items to the people who needed them.
I should mention that Typhoon Maysak hit just two weeks after Category Five Tropical Cyclone Pam devastated Tuvalu and Vanuatu, so resources in the Pacific were very stretched.
Between late April and early July, a further three storm events hit various parts of FSM, causing further damage to areas already struggling with the impact of Maysak.
Luckily, by August, things quietened down and began to dry up – literally, as warnings came in now as an El Nino drought was predicted for the across parts of the Pacific, with the north likely to be most severely affected.
Conditions have been harsh, especially across the most northern region of the Marshall Islands, and my role has involved working with the Government National Disaster Management Office and assisting and mentoring the Marshall Islands Red Cross to contribute to the response.
So four months has passed. I’ve been here 16 months and will be here at least until Christmas. We have weathered a few storms and a drought and in between it all, I have worked with incredible people across the region and visited amazing places.
It’s been challenging, rewarding and I’ve learnt a lot. I will tell you a bit more about the bits in between in my next blog – especially about my failed introduction of a Sausage Sizzle to the Marshall Islands!
Stay tuned …