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Home > World

Apres le Deluge

"I didn't expect to see what I saw, I have never seen anything like that before, I was stunned at the extent of the devastation. I was incredulous, it is incomprehensible."

- Prime Minister of Cook Islands, Dr Robert Woonton

A report by our South Seas correspondent, Jon Harwood

13 January 2004

Have you heard of Niue? - a tiny little island 600 miles from Rarotonga, one of the world’s smallest, if not the smallest, self-governing states, and home to just 1,500 people.

No? Well, here are two more Niue facts for you:

1) The name, pronounced New-ay, means 'behold the coconut'.

2) Last week, Niue was totally and utterly demolished by a massive, massive, massive cyclone with 300kmph winds and 50 metre waves (no lie).

Tropical cyclone Heta, as she was called, affected Samoa, Tonga, and even the Cook Islands, which were 450 miles away from the eye of the storm. But Niue was the real victim. This miniscule coral island felt the full, terrifying power of the cyclone that scored 5+ out of 5 in the scale of severity. The screaming winds and gigantic waves made a mockery of Niue’s cyclone get-out clause: the 30 metre high cliffs that surround the island.

Homes sit on a plateau protected by a ‘makatea’ of fossilised coral and are usually safe from the sea, but when Heta hit the sea was washing away houses 200 metres inland. Houses which had been built with hurricanes in mind.

Incredibly only one person died. But she was one of the few nurses on the island, crushed to death as her house collapsed around her as she shielded her 19-month old son. He survived and is now in hospital in New Zealand.

Niueans, like many other Pacific Islanders, have New Zealand citizenship. It is now feared that people who have lost everything may choose to start afresh there with its social security system, rather than go through the painful and arduous process of trying to resurrect their own tiny nation.

After all, back home the streets are now strewn with rubble and asbestos, septic tanks are leaking into the soil, the year’s crops have been lost, food is scarce, government records have been destroyed, and the hospital has been levelled.

As the Premier of the nation, Young Vivian has said, the infrastructure and economy of the country have literally been blown away:

"Any cyclone with that strength is going to wipe out whatever efforts we have made in the past years in terms of agricultural products. This will really knock us back in terms of building the country economically. It will knock us right back to square one."

He has admitted that his people may choose to move away from Niue as a result:

"It has proven so in the past, because if they go through too many of these cyclones, they just give up and leave."

It would be a sad end for a nation that, like other tiny Pacific islands, has tried many inventive ways to keep itself going. Free wireless internet for every citizen was funded by the sale of the .nu internet domains as the island made a bid to become the IT capital of the Pacific, Niue postage stamps have become highly prized by collectors, and of course there is eco-tourism.

A region wide aid programme, led by New Zealand and Australia, has been launched for the stricken nation, and here in the Cook Islands, where we experienced floods and 14 metre high waves as Heta sailed over Niue, 600
miles away, a relief effort is underway.

Many people here have friends or relatives on the island. People are anxious to help their Polynesian cousins even if the means to do so are limited. But everyone here knows that if Heta had hit Rarotonga the devastation would be unimaginable, and you can rest assured Niue would have done everything in its power to help us.

To find out more about the Cook Islands’ Niue appeal, and to make donations, contact Elliot Smith at: relax@shangri-la.co.ck

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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