When you get hit hard, take a lesson from people who know how to get back up

March 2023 satellite photos of both Cyclone Judy and Cyclone Kevin

Vanuatu...the tiny island nation where my son and my 3 grandchildren live has been hammered by two back-to-back cyclones in the past few days. Cyclone Judy and Cyclone Kevin, category 4, cyclones slammed across the island within 24 hours of each other. 

If that wasn't enough to make your head swirl, somewhere in between these two cyclones, the country shook from a 6.5 earthquake. There was a lot of damage. It was brutal. 

The people of Vanuatu are used to natural disasters.

In 2015, they were battered by a category 5 cyclone. Cyclone Pam was ruthless. The recovery took years. 

In 1987 when I lived in Vanuatu, Cyclone Uma was a force and wreaked immense havoc. I remember a sleepless night, trying not to be completely freaked out that the roof was going to blow off while I held my 15-month-old toddler on my chest and my husband held our 3-year-old.

It was a long night to hear the winds howling and howling. It was my first cyclone and I wasn't sure what would happen. 

I thought, what will we do if the roof blows off? Go to the truck and pray the corrugated tin flying all around wouldn't slice us to pieces? Hunker down in the bathtub in darkness all night with the rain pouring in?

1987 Port Vila, Vanuatu after Cyclone Uma

Neither choice seemed viable. 

I remember praying, please just let us live. Everything else can be bought. It was a straight-up lesson that possessions don't matter. Only being safe. I knew at that moment that all our material things didn't mean a thing...we could replace whatever we had. 

Somehow our roof survived the 180 mph winds (that was the estimate because back then, there were no satellites monitoring the cyclone). No one really knew how strong the winds were...the weather station blew away. The only way to gauge was how much wind it would have taken to knock down steel telephone poles that looked like match sticks afterward. 

The road to Le Lagon, a resort in Port Vila.  You can see the telephone poles in the photo bent down to the ground

The next morning we looked out the window and saw houses around us with no roofs. The first sound I remember hearing was hammers...rebuilding. 

As we drove to town amidst fallen trees everywhere, I saw Ni Vanuatu people on the road walking, waving, and even smiling.  It struck me that these people are hard-core resilient.

One of the houses not as lucky as we were just down the road from us

I experienced one cyclone all those years ago. It's hard to imagine another cyclone just a day later, raging through and leaving even more damage behind in its path. These were category 4 cyclones. It's mindboggling to me to imagine the hit that Vanuatu took. 

Tanna, one of the more southern islands in Vanuatu, may have been hit even harder. At the time of this writing, there is no connection with the people there. These people there survived Cyclone Pam (category 5) in 2015 but suffered greatly afterward from lack of food. 

Someone told me that when the roofs blow off their houses, the Ni Vanuatu, in the outer islands, huddle together in the wind and rain, placing the children and the elders in the center of the huddle to protect them.

Take that in for a minute. In raging wind and rain, imagine being a part of this group. How would you survive? And yet they did and they have survived. They don't give up. 

There are things we can learn from these people who just got smacked.  They can tell us how to be resilient, and how to get back up when sucker punched. They do this all the time. 

As the climate continues to change and storms become more frequent and more powerful, they show us perhaps how we will all have to learn how to adapt if we want to survive in this world. The Ni Vanuatu and the people who live there know that giving up is not an option.

They know to focus on the fact that they're alive and not hurt. 

We can learn from them how to tell ourselves something different. 

We can believe in ourselves and that we are resilient. We have to work together. We have to start telling ourselves something different, such as "we can do hard things."  We can survive. 

I imagine right now the Ni Vanuatu and all people who live in Vanuatu are rebuilding. I imagine you can hear the sound of hammers and chainsaws. I imagine that they still have smiles.

Because that's who they are...resilient people.  They are clearing the downed trees and ruined landscape. They are beginning again. They are getting back up. 

This is Ruth, my beloved housegirl and dear friend. She's seen many cyclones in her years and is the heart of resiliency

I'm waiting to hear more from my son and his family. They have had intermittent internet service. They have no power. Andrew sent a video of the wind swirling around with debris everywhere.

And he said, "Mom, we're okay."  I needed to hear that. 

This is what NOT to do: Two nights ago, during the cyclones,  I told myself an anxious story that their new house would be in too much danger which is on the top of a hill where the winds are fierce and it's supposedly the most vulnerable part of the island. 

What I did was reach out to my friend in Australia who survived Cyclone Pam, the category 5 cyclone. I said, "Alison, please tell me it's going to be okay." And she said "this cyclone is less powerful than Pam. and the house is built like a steel fortress." I felt the anxiety ease and I was able to let go of the story I told myself and just say to myself... "no news is good news." 

One thing I've learned is that when I know that my loved ones are in danger, what I need is someone to jerk me out of my worst-case scenario and say, it's going to be alright. 

I've learned to focus on the fact that even though cyclones are scary as hell, most people survive. We can always send the people going through hard times thoughts of strength and well-being.

I imagine seeing the people of Vanuatu being fierce and unstoppable... because they are. 


if you're interested in donating, please respond to me at [email protected]. I'm still in the process of finding out the most useful way to contribute and help the people of Vanuatu.  

What do you do when you're scared and telling yourself bad stories? What helps you? 

How strong is your resilience? (I'm betting you're stronger than you think).

What will you say to yourself to get back up? 

Take your journal out and answer these questions. I'd love to know your thoughts. You can respond to my email above. 

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