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  • Writer's pictureMichael Roman

The Storm

The celebrations came to an abrupt halt as a large storm descended upon the island during our final night there. It was unlike any storm I had ever experienced, its ferocity and intensity leaving us feeling vulnerable and exposed. Unlike back home, where shelter could be sought from the elements, there was nowhere to escape the impact of the storm on the small, low-lying atolls of Kiribati.

As the violent winds and torrential rain battered the island, any semblance of cover we had managed to find quickly collapsed or was swept away by the force of the storm. It was later rumored that the storm had originated from an undersea earthquake near Papua New Guinea, over 2,000 miles southwest of Kiribati. Despite its remote origin, the storm had reached our shores with devastating strength, catching us completely off guard.

I was told that such severe weather events were rare in Kiribati, as the islands typically did not experience such harsh conditions. However, having only been there for a week, I found it difficult to comprehend the rarity of the situation. Faced with the looming threat of losing my life to the unforgiving ocean, my mind sought solace in the knowledge gleaned from seventh-grade earth science lessons on tsunami wave development patterns.

I reasoned that the unique geography of coral atolls, with their lack of significant land mass, made the formation of a tsunami wave unlikely. Yet, even as I clung to this reassurance, the specter of the worst-case scenario loomed ominously, casting a shadow of fear and uncertainty over our already precarious situation.

As we made our way back home from the bootaki, the winds began to pick up, causing the trees to sway ominously and the seas to grow increasingly turbulent. Despite the intensifying storm, I reassured myself that it wasn't as severe as it seemed. However, as we reached our home and settled in to wait for the storm to pass, the situation quickly escalated.

Hour after hour passed, with the relentless rain and howling winds showing no signs of abating. As the clock struck seven, then eight, then nine, ten, and eleven, I began to sense a growing unease creeping over me. But it wasn't until midnight arrived that the full force of nature's wrath was unleashed upon us in a way I had never before witnessed or experienced firsthand.

The fury of the storm was beyond anything I could have imagined, as if the heavens themselves had opened up in a display of raw power and fury. In that moment, I felt small and insignificant in the face of nature's awesome might, humbled by the realization of just how vulnerable we truly were in the face of such forces.

We first heard it—a sound that sent shivers down our spines, akin to a moving freight train barreling through the night. The winds howled with a ferocity that seemed to echo the rage of Poseidon himself, while the seas churned and roared in a symphony of chaos and destruction.

Frantically, my hand fumbled for the flashlight, my fingers searching desperately until they found it. With trembling hands, I flicked the switch and pierced the darkness with its beam, revealing a scene of utter devastation that would be forever etched in my memory.

Through the coconut spines, I glimpsed true fury being unleashed upon the world. Towering waves rose and crashed with relentless force, rain whipped through the air in a frenzy, and waters surged forth with a relentless determination to flood and destroy everything in their path.

And then came the sensation—a terrifying realization as the winds seized our house, lifting it up and down in a terrifying rhythm of destruction. Up and down, whoosh, up and down, the relentless onslaught threatened to tear our fragile shelter apart.

With a sense of desperation, the four of us huddled together on the raised platform, praying that our combined weight would anchor the house down and spare us from the wrath of the storm. Beneath us, dogs and cats sought refuge from the tempest, while I couldn't help but imagine the rats finding shelter next to the soap dish in the roki, the bathroom.

The disaster raged on, an eternity of terror and uncertainty, until finally, the first light of dawn broke through the darkness, casting its illuminating glow upon the devastation that surrounded us. Emerging from our hiding spots, we ventured out into the aftermath, greeted by a landscape transformed by the fury of the storm.

Houses stood battered and broken, their walls and roofs torn asunder. Fallen coconut trees littered the school's field, while large sections of the school's roof lay scattered amidst the debris. In the harsh light of day, the true extent of the destruction became painfully clear, a testament to the awesome power of nature and the fragility of human existence in its wake.

As we made our way towards the lagoon to board our return canoe, the scene around us spoke volumes of resilience and unity in the face of adversity. Families worked tirelessly to repair their damaged homes, with men gathering materials such as coconut spines and pandanus leaves while women and girls skillfully wove them into new thatch. Meanwhile, young boys climbed atop roofs, bravely readjusting and installing fresh thatch to reinforce their shelters.

It was a sight that filled me with admiration and awe, witnessing the entire village come together as one to overcome the devastation wrought by the storm. Much like the collective effort seen in the construction and maintenance of the maneaba, the community rallied together in a display of solidarity and determination to rebuild and recover.

In that moment, amidst the hustle and bustle of repair work, I gained a profound appreciation for the power of collective action in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges. The town taught me a valuable lesson about the strength and resilience that can be found in unity, a lesson that I vowed never to forget as I embarked on the journey back home.

Upon our return from the Host Volunteer Visit (HVV), we were greeted with yet another welcome party, this time hosted at the Australian High Commissioner's house. Given the recent ordeal we had collectively endured during the storm, it was no surprise that our reunion was met with overwhelming joy and relief.

As we gathered together, exchanging stories and laughter, the recent storm served as the focal point of conversation for everyone present. Even Brad, the Australian High Commissioner, joined in the discussion, sharing his own insights and perspectives on the event.

Despite the challenges we had faced, there was a palpable sense of camaraderie and solidarity among us, strengthened by our shared experiences and mutual support. As we reflected on the events of the past few days, it became clear that our bond had grown even stronger in the face of adversity, a testament to the resilience and spirit of cooperation that defined our journey together.

Late that night, I got a call from Australia warning me of a strong storm headed our way from Papua New Guinea.  When I brought the call, I phoned the Kiribati Minister of Environment and warned him of the approaching storm.  He told me not to worry about it and to call him back the following day.  I’m unsure if the Minister was tired or highly optimistic, but I wouldn’t take my chances.  I slept at the highest point of the embassy with a life preserver, praying that I would be able to call him back in the morning.

After a brief stay in Tarawa, we embarked on the next leg of our journey: our Host Family Visits (HFV) on Maiana Island. Nestled in the heart of the Pacific, Maiana would be our home for the next three months as we immersed ourselves in island life and learned the intricacies of living in such a unique setting.

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