Back to the news list Seasonal workers in NZ when cyclone Harold struck
4 June 2020 - Media Release - Stuff NZ

When Cyclone Harold brought widespread destruction to the south-west Pacific, some of the destroyed villages had to rebuild without the help of their fittest men, who were in New Zealand picking fruit. Tony Wall reports on how the coronavirus pandemic has stalled efforts to help the worst-hit communities.

Cleban? Tula heard about the cyclone on Facebook. He couldn't call his family in northern Vanuatu, because the phone network was down.

It was three days before he was able to make contact and confirm that everyone was okay.

But the cyclone had torn through his community on the northern island of Espiritu ?Santo, destroying his family's cooking house, toilet and gardens as well as neighbouring homes.

The cyclone ravaged northern Vanuatu in April, destroying 16,000 homes as well as other buildings, infrastructure and crops. New Zealand was in alert level four lockdown at the time and Vanuatu had closed its border to prevent Covid-19 arriving.

Tula, 24, arrived in New Zealand last November. He has been coming to New Zealand for seven years as part of the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme that allows Pacific Islanders to come here for several months to work in horticulture. More than 14,000 workers took advantage of the scheme in 2019.

Homes were levelled and foliage stripped bare by the power of Cyclone Harold.
Homes were levelled and foliage stripped bare by the power of Cyclone Harold.

When Cyclone Harold struck, tearing a path through northern Vanuatu and also causing damage in Fiji and Tonga, many RSE workers whose homes were destroyed found themselves stranded in New Zealand because of the border closures.

Stuff heard of one worker from an outlying island in Fiji whose family huddled in a bathroom while the cyclone destroyed their house - he was unable to make contact with them for more than two weeks.

"For us it's a hard time," Tula says, while picking kiwifruit near Tauranga. "We're just worrying about the family back home, how they gonna eat, where they gonna sleep."

He was able to send some money home in advance of the cyclone so that his wife and two children could move to a safe area. But Western Union has been down much of the time since the cyclone, making it difficult to send money to help with the rebuild.

This week, there was finally help for a small number of the workers, who managed to secure seats on two New Zealand Defence Force C-130 flights carrying aid supplies to Vanuatu.

Vanuatu citizens board an Air Force flight home on Wednesday.
Vanuatu citizens board an Air Force flight home on Wednesday.

But of the 58 ni-Vanuatu citizens who managed to hitch a ride on the flights - one of which left on Wednesday, the other due to depart Thursday - less than 10 were RSE workers.

"These flights do not mark the beginning of large-scale repatriations to the Pacific," a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade says.

"They came about because the delivery of relief supplies also provided the opportunity to return more than 50 Vanuatu citizens and permanent residents, who had been prioritised by the Vanuatu Government."

There was pre-departure screening for the passengers, PPE gear was worn on board the aircraft and the passengers will go into "managed isolation" on arrival in Vanuatu.

"Vanuatu currently has no cases of Covid-19 so it is critically important to avoid spreading the virus," the MFAT spokesman says.

There have been five NZDF relief flights to Vanuatu, delivering supplies such as tarpaulins, shelter tool kits, mother and infant kits, and family hygiene kits - part of New Zealand's $2.5m aid contribution.

For RSE workers still here, Immigration NZ has extended the temporary visas of those whose visas were about to expire, allowing them to continue working so they can support themselves and send money home.

But apple picking is finishing, forcing workers to move to other parts of the country to find work in industries such as kiwifruit. Sources say there is not enough accommodation for everyone.

Tula says he and his compatriots don't know what they'll do if the work runs out and their country's border remains closed.

Cleban Tula, of Santo, Vanuatu, wants to get home to help with the cyclone recovery.
Cleban Tula, of Santo, Vanuatu, wants to get home to help with the cyclone recovery.

"There's nothing we can do now, only the Government if they open the borders."

An Immigration NZ (INZ) spokesperson says RSE workers who no longer have work should talk to their embassy or consulate, while INZ is looking at ways to provide "greater flexibility" for the workers until flights are available for them to return home.

Horticulture New Zealand and INZ staff are contacting employers about the ongoing availability of work in regional industries, the spokesperson says.

"RSE worker welfare is of concern to both the Government and industry who wish to minimise any adverse social issues arising amongst unemployed workers."

Meanwhile, charities have been raising money to help with the cyclone relief effort.

A Te Puke-based charity, Fruit of the Pacific, raised money to transfer a sawmill used to mill fallen timber on Tanna, southern Vanuatu, after Cyclone Pam in 2015 to Malo island in the northern group.

"We knew from history that having a sawmill was really useful for the rebuild," says chief executive Kylie DellaBarca Steel?.

She reached out to the kiwifruit industry, which, along with its RSE workers, contributed $25,000 for the project.

DellaBarca Steel says they will be providing materials such as cyclone straps to ensure buildings are stronger.

"Otherwise they'll just use recycled nails and they'll just blow apart again in another cyclone."

On the ground in Vanuatu, Kiwis David and Lynn Colbert of the Butterfly Trust have been co-ordinating aid efforts in places such as the west coast of Santo, which took a direct hit from Cyclone Harold.

They've delivered food to remote areas and also brought in experts in coconut thatch weaving to teach the locals how to rebuild roofs as much of the natangora? plant they normally use was wiped out.

Homes in Espiritu Santo, in northern Vanuatu, were destroyed by Cyclone Harold in April.
Homes in Espiritu Santo, in northern Vanuatu, were destroyed by Cyclone Harold in April.

Colbert says after Cyclone Pam in 2015, international aid organisations poured resources and personnel into Vanuatu, "but unfortunately the lessons learned after Pam weren't really put into practice when Cyclone Harold struck.

"There were no pre-positioned supplies, no register of ships available to do cyclone relief - there was nothing in place."

The border closure because of Covid-19 complicated things, Colbert says.

Six weeks after the cyclone, only 13 per cent of areas that had suffered damage had been serviced.

"That's fairly poor. The first thing you usually do is provide tarpaulins and rope and nails and tools so they can at least put some sort of roof up.

"But the official response has been pretty slow. No tarpaulins got out to West Coast Santo.

"We were promised tarpaulins through the Government agencies but they never turned up.

"We thought, 'let's just go to the next stage of cyclone recovery', which is building back in a more permanent way and we thought 'let's start thatching roofs'.

"So we went ahead and got the weavers and they went across to West Coast Santo and taught all the communities how to weave with coconut.

"It's cool we've managed to get shelter over their heads and they've learned a new skill - the question is why weren't they weaving with coconut leaves to make thatch before? I don't know."

Colbert says although aid has been slow to reach some areas, Covid-19 was the bigger risk so he could understand why the Government was careful to restrict who could come into the country.

"The medical structures here are such that if Covid took a hold in any significant way it would be very, very difficult to control."

Colbert says while the upside of the RSE scheme is that it brings money into some communities, it also strips some villages of their best workers, which has made it difficult to rebuild after the cyclone.

"The negative side of the RSE scheme is that you take the cream of your village out for months of the year - most of them are male - so you leave their families in the village, with the mother left to look after the children and tend the garden and do all the work."

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