Eruptions, quakes, cyclones: Vanuatu man survives them all

EFATE, Vanuatu — Volcanic eruptions, landslides, earthquakes and cyclones: 76-year-old Lik Simelum from Vanuatu has survived them all.

He lives in a country that’s ranked by the United Nations University as the world’s most at-risk for natural disasters. But his story is remarkable even in an archipelago that has grown familiar with nature’s fury. It is also filled with sadness: his father and youngest brother were both killed by a landslide.

Simelum survived yet another disaster this month when Cyclone Pam ripped through the South Pacific archipelago, destroying thousands of homes and killing at least 17 people. Simelum’s outdoor kitchen was blasted to pieces and he had to sweep the water from his home from flooding, but he doesn’t seem too worried about all that.

Simelum’s story begins when he was just 11, living on the island of Ambryn, located in central Vanuatu. In December 1950, violent tremors began on the Benbow volcano, which then turned into a major series of eruptions that lasted for almost a year.

“I was frightened,” he said. “Sometimes during the day there would be a lot of ash going up and blocking the sun.”

He said on those days his family would eat lunch with a lamp because it was so dark.

“There was ash on all the trees and the bushes,” he said. “Sometimes you could only see the whites of people’s eyes, they were black with ash all over.”

The ash affected everything, he said, killing crops and contaminating the family’s well water. So the joint French and British government evacuated much of Ambryn, relocating his family to Epi Island.

He said the family was in Epi only a matter of weeks when a ferocious cyclone struck, just before Christmas 1951. News reports at the time indicate the winds sunk four ships and killed an unknown number of people.

Simelum said the rains were so heavy they triggered landslides. One roared through his home in the middle of the night, killing his father and his brother.

“It carried them away,” he said.

His mother survived by clinging to the rafters of their home, he said, although she broke her back. Simelum had been sleeping elsewhere that night, after his family had moved him for his own safety. He said his two sisters, who live near him now, were living on other islands at the time.

He said his mother was taken to a hospital in Port Vila and the two of them were relocated from Epi for a second time, to a village on the main island of Efate, in the house where he still lives today. He said he worked first as a teacher, and later as a district education officer. His mother, he said, died peacefully from conditions related to her age.

In 1987, Cyclone Uma struck. It lifted the verandah from the home and flung it about 25 meters (82 feet), he said. It also caused flooding and filled the home with mud.

Then in October 2009, a powerful magnitude-7.7 earthquake hit Vanuatu. Simelum said he ran outside during the shaking.

“It was strong,” he said.

His low-lying village soon got the news: it was about to be wiped out by a tsunami triggered by the quake. So he and the others left, leaving everything behind, and ran up a nearby hill. But the tsunami never eventuated and they were able to return.

Life was relatively peaceful for a few years until Cyclone Pam hit. Simelum said he’s too old to repair his kitchen now, and will leave that work to his children. But he said he expects to see more weather extremes.

“Climate change will cause more disasters to Vanuatu,” he said.

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