“The wrong time, wrong place, wrong shore.” Cyclone Heta – Nuie - 2004
Nuie • Nuie is a small limestone island on top of a sleeping volcano between Tonga and the Cook Islands. • It measures 23kms by 18kms - area 250km2. • It rises to 68m above sea level and most of the island is lower than 30m. • The population is 1400-1800, with 200-300 tourists enjoying clear waters, caves and whale watching. • It is also in the path of large tropical cyclones.
“This is no joke” • There is first the expectation and preparation.Windows are securely shut; moveable objects are put away; antennas are taken down and people prepare to wait out the storm in secure places. • “John was busy as disaster co-ordinator, ensuring that the hospital was ready to evacuate, emergency generators in good repair etc…..” • “We managed to batten down our house on Sunday 4th January just before it got dark…..I filled all available bottles with water, filled the bath to supply water for bathing and flushing, made meatloaf to eat cold in case the power went out and made bread”
Tropical Cyclones • Tropical cyclones are spiralling winds moving around a centre of low pressure. • The wind and waves on the left side of a tropical cyclone are the most powerful. • Over several days above a warm sea such a tropical cyclone can increase its size and strength to monstrous proportions. • Likewise they lose their strength over land or cold seas.
Cyclone Track • Cyclone Heta reached tropical cyclone strength on New Year’s Day 2004 in a deserted part of the Pacific Ocean. • After travelling to the Tokelau Islands it retraced its’ steps, heading for Western Samoa. • From 4-6th January it headed directly for Nuie. • Cyclone Heta passed 70kms west of Nuie, and the most devestating part of the cyclone battered the island.
A one in a thousand year event • Cyclone Heta increased in strength as it headed for Nuie until it was one of the most ferocious storms known to man – a Class 5 hurricane with wind speeds of over 250km/h. • The long straight course allowed the storm to whip the seas to its left and in front into mountainous waves along with a high 5m+ storm surge. • It moved over the Pacific Ocean at 30km/h and hit the NW side of the island.
Where people live on Nuie • Nuie gets regular trade winds from the south-east so most of this coast is uninhabitable. • The NW side of the island is more sheltered and so most of its’ population and tourist activites are located here along with the wharf for landing goods that come by ship.
The effect of Nuies’ shore profile • The shore profile of Nuie shows how the land gradually slopes down from 50m+ to sea level, with most houses 20-30m asl. • Outside the coral fringe the sea drops to 30m. The continental shelf is only 400m wide and then the sea bottom rapidly goes down to 3000m. • Because the continental shelf is too narrow it cannot absorb the waves’ energy. Instead it slows the waves down and increases their height x3. • Waves of up to 30m run up the natural ramp, crash over the coral fringe and wash inland for hundreds of metres at speeds of around 100km/h. This is called overwash and it destroys everything in its path.
Wind – the word does not even begin to describe it! • “On Sunday the rain had begun and the wind was lifting, but was still a stiff breeze and gusty….I had begun to wonder if the cyclone had turned away. On Monday 5th Janurary we woke to overcast skies, heavy rain and strong wind. By midday we were feeling the effects of the cyclone. The wind was blowing at around 150km/h gusting to 180km/h ….. foolish me I thought this was the worst ……at the height of the cyclone the wind was measured at 290km/h …. the rain was horizontal ” • The sound is deafening….water droplets propelled at these speeds cause damage to the skin and one cannot face the storm.
Overwash • Then the water comes. Wave after wave, reaching even higher and with their enormous strength washing sheds, houses and workshops into the sea. • ”Nuie stands straight up from the sea to a height of 30m. The waves were not breaking until they were on land….an old lady watched a wave break and when it was gone so was the house across the road…the next wave crossed the road, and her garden, to wash over her bed”
Rescue • “Our house is on the upper plateau of the island, so was not in danger from the sea…..On Monday 1.30pm John delivered a couple evacuated from the Matava’s Resort…at 2.30pm he delivered his father …a house in Alofi North had gone..by 4pm 4 more houses had gone…..John and the rest of the police were still rescuing people near 6pm, with the waves smashing into their vehicles….John estimates they saved 100 people.”
The power of the waves • “Along the coast up to 12m of cliff has gone. I do not mean off the top but the 30m vertically and 12m laterally”
“All the trees are down” • “All around we could hear loud cracks as trees fell. I’m talking big trees - metre or more in diameter of the trunk. The coconut trees lasted longest, then they also succumbed.”
Aftermath • Then the storm abates slowly, finally reaching a point where people, the strongest men first, can creep out of their shelters to see what has happened. The place is unrecognisable. Everything has been shifted or torn down with strange objects everywhere.
“All the fruit trees are like skeletons in the forest” • The effect of the storm on local flora and fauna can only be guessed at as fruits for fruit bats and birds, and leaves for insects have become very scarce. • Ecologists believe Nuie’s birds and bats could become extinct unless alternative food sources can be found.
“All our virgin rainforest is gone” • 80% of all the foliage on the island has been stripped off, which destroyed also crops and fruiting trees. • All plants have received so much salt spray that their remaining leaves may eventually turn brown and die.Future income has vanished. • ”The rain during the cyclone carried salt water which killed everything in its path.”
Tragedy • “At some stage, my neighbours carport detached from their house and flew into our back garden - travelling the length of the house before settling in the far corner. Her fridge flew over 3 cars parked at the property boundary and settled in our front garden. In the morning I was to find debris - paint tins, wooden boards, roof tiles, roofing iron, solar panels, plumbing etc….searchers also found the body of Cathy Alec battered by rocks as she tried to escape her home. Her baby son is fighting for his life in Starship hospital.” (a fight he eventually lost) • A Filipino voluntary worker suffered serious injuries while many islanders have cuts and grazes.
Home sweet home • Houses start to break as their roofs become airborne. • “The waves carried huge boulders from the sea, the building essentially bombarded with rocks up to 1.5m in diameter” • “My frail father-in-law drank for the first time today since the 5th ….my biggest worry is that he has lost the will to live. He wants to go home, but his house is uninhabitable having lost its roof, door and windows”
Devastation • “I did not recognise anything! For a stretch of 2kms or so nothing stands. The houses, shops, hospital, service station and Nuie Motel (also gone were churches,Justice Department and the museum with all their taonga) - all gone. I do not have words for the devastation. It is as if powerful bombs have been dropped, obliterating everything” • The resorts of Hotel Nuie and Matavai had been filling up. Now…….
“We are in the dark…the power down and the water off” • The aftermath is concerned with finding out if anything still works. The telephones are dead and if it wasn’t for satellite phones Nuie’s plight might not have been able to reach the world. • “We got water on day 5 and power on day 6…..within a week of the cyclone was miraculous. I had expected to be without power for up to a month. We are still boiling water as we wait for aid agency people to test the water”
“I think we lost around 50 homes, this is more than 10% of the households on Nuie…….A number of government owned dwellings were also destroyed and the government needs to find funds to replace these…There is a rumour that school will not operate at all this year.” • The airport and wharf remain operational. “It will get worse before it gets better”
With so much damage the recovery process will take time. • Airforce Hercules and a Red Cross flight are bringing in food, clothing, generators, communications and specialist builders, electricians, plumbers etc • A donor team from Australia, France, Britain, Germany, Canada, Japan and Fiji are working with NZ authorities to help with relief efforts. • NZ’s 20,000-strong Nuiean population are raising funds and providing volunteers as are about 2000 Nuieans in Australia. • The European Union is giving $US 767,000 towards rebuilding Nuie, the UN $40,000.
“Life will be extremely tough” • “The Australians have set up a mobile field hospital….NZ has sent equipment and food……locals have done an amazing job clearing the roads and tidying their houses and work areas….The rebuilding will be time and labour intensive…I estimate 6 months before Nuie is close to operational…French Polynesia have promised 30 kitset houses..they intend to begin building here in 3 weeks. I have promised John that if disease breaks out I will move to NZ.”
Where to from here? • “The whole nation is traumatised.” • The future looks grim for those prepared to give up easily. Nuie will need up to $20 million to rebuild. • The newly constructed fish processing plant is gone. • Nuie’s economy, based on tourism (up 44% in the last quarter) and vanilla crops, coconut and fruit trees (grapefruit, pawpaws), was just showing promising returns. Both have been destroyed as have most of the popular coral reefs and the whole dive operation that made this paradise popular with tourists.
Acknowledgements • Sharon • Cyclone Heta Information Article • Doreen • Photos – pre Heta • http://tagaloa.de/heta/index.html • Photos – post Heta • http://www.nunames.nu/nuimages/cycloneheta.htm • Photos – post Heta • http://www.seafriends.org.nz/indepth/nd010.htm • Information, diagrams and charts