Read about the work and travel of VSA's staff.
Published on 3rd September 2014
Media Officer Sarah Barnett has been in Papua New Guinea, visiting volunteers, partners and staff. Back in Wellington, she has been reflecting on the impact of the eruption she and colleague Chris Mitchell (our Graphic Designer) witnessed while in Kokopo.
Working in the shadow of Mt Tavurvur last week was an odd affair. The volcano erupted in the early hours of Friday morning, and from Kokopo (which is about 45 minutes’ drive from Rabaul, where the volcano is) we had spectacular views: the lava shooting up, smoke rising from the pyroclastic flow down the mountain’s flanks, localised lightning in the ash cloud.
The ash cloud, importantly, was blowing away from Kokopo. We knew Rabaul itself was, once again, partially evacuated. Those remaining were warned to stay home with the windows shut. We also knew that the ash would be bad news elsewhere. I found out where on Saturday night, when I attended a film fundraiser organised by Liv Loftus and Vinnie Roberts, both volunteering at Callan Services in Kokopo.
A number of volunteers at the fundraiser – from VSA as well as Volunteer Service Overseas and the Methodist Mission – had come in from Kabaira, to the west of Rabaul. There, the first most of them knew the volcano had erupted was when ash started falling (the mountain isn't visible from their location). Lorena de la Torre, volunteering at Kabaira Girls’ Vocational Centre (KVC), said her garden was scorched by the ash fallout, and they didn’t know yet how the rest of the College’s plantation had fared.
Judging by what I heard from other volunteers, probably not well. A Methodist Church volunteer at St George Secondary School, just down the road from KVC, said she’d got a text that morning with a rumour the volcano had erupted and went outside into what she’d thought was rain. Within minutes, she said, she was covered in ash, and her skin was itching and burning. Most people in Kabaira live off their land, and she told me they’re scared for the coming months – their crops (and, therefore, their livelihoods) have been destroyed.
Rabaul is the major port in the area. If ships can’t come in, there will be few grocery deliveries, too. It’s likely that the coming food shortages will drive up prices on what’s left.
We know that developing countries are especially vulnerable to natural disasters – it’s a major topic of conversation at the Small Island Developing States conference in Apia this week. But this is what it looks like in practice: weeks, probably months and possibly even years of further hardship for people living their lives in the wake of the event.
Local people have an affectionate name for Rabaul: Radaaz. It means “dust”, but symbolises Rabaul’s spirit of triumph over Mt Tarvurvur’s adversity. From what I saw last week, they will continue to triumph over the volcano's challenge, and volunteers from all over the world will stand beside them. But it won’t be easy.