Fast Response Ignites Hope in Cyclone Ravaged Pacific Paradise

16 Mar 2010

Scene of Cyclone Pat devastation
Cook Islands -- Shortly after Cyclone Pat tore through Aitutaki, one of Cook Islands’ most popular tourist destinations, it became clear that quick action to rebuild homes and livelihoods was needed to head off another blow to its fragile economy. Aitutaki is one of the 15 islands that make up ‘the Cooks’ and, increasingly, the young and employable are migrating to New Zealand and Australia in search of jobs. Now there is a real concern that the destruction left by Cyclone Pat will give them one more reason to leave, says Moortaza Jiwanji, leader of the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) early recovery team.
 
"The eye of the cyclone thundered down one side of the island, then turned around and tore up the other," explained Mr Jiwanji. In the cyclone’s wake, 78% of homes and infrastructure lay damaged or completely destroyed and the agriculture sector wiped out. On February 10, 2010, the Prime Minister declared a state of emergency. The Cook Islands Government and humanitarian agencies moved quickly to deliver emergency food, water and shelter, while the UNDP team supported Government to develop a recovery and reconstruction plan aimed at getting people back on their feet as quickly as possible. "The focus is on giving people, especially young people, a reason to stay now and in the future," said Mr Jiwanji.

The Plan, which has already attracted more than seven million dollars worth of backing from the Government of New Zealand, provides a roadmap for quickly repairing damaged homes and incomes through a combination of cash grants and cash for work. Under the scheme, 100 young people will earn the equivalent of a local labourer’s wage to clean-up cyclone debris and repair homes, while the elderly and disabled will have the resources to employ others to rebuild their homes. The scheme aims to inject much needed money into the local economy, allowing people to buy housing materials, food and other essentials.

As climate change takes hold, Aitutaki faces the prospect of more furious and frequent cyclones, so the Plan also provides for a review of local building codes, and training for carpenters in disaster resilient building techniques, as well as improving local early warning systems. A second phase of reconstruction will focus on some of the more heavily damaged infrastructure, and on expanding income options for local people.
Aitutaki’s world famous lagoon has attracted tourists, TV producers and filmmakers since the 1950s and the tourism sector is well-established—with 90,000 visitors expected annually.

"The plan looks at ways to expand the financial benefits of tourism beyond the walls of the high-end resorts so that more local people can participate in this part of the economy," Mr Jiwanji said. Under the Plan, UNDP will support local entrepreneurs to develop tours for visitors interested in bone fishing, diving, flora and fauna, and traditional remedies and massage. "What will make this Plan work now and in the long-run is the incredible commitment I have seen here from the Government to lead the recovery and reconstruction process at the overall planning level, and from the communities to not simply patch themselves up, but to actually build back better," he said.

"The speed with which this Plan was put together and funded, also its forward looking nature, has sent a clear message of hope to people in Aitutaki," UNDP Resident Representative Nileema Noble said. "There is also a clear opportunity now to build a better Aitutaki, one that is safer and holds more opportunities for young people to establish their lives there," she said. "And, this is what early recovery is all about – working to establish livelihood options that shorten the humanitarian phase, while also creating opportunities that enable people to be more resilient against future calamities. UNDP doesn’t bring bags of money to the crisis management table in these circumstances, but rather the technical resources that Governments need to manage and ultimately overcome these events," she said.