When the Killer Cyclone Hit!
By “Awake!” correspondent in the Solomon Islands
THE killer moved slowly at first. Inching its way southwestward, it made a sudden beeline for Malaita—one of the Solomon islands. There it began cutting its trail of death.
Winds clocked at speeds up to 115 mph (185 km/hr) began pummeling everything in their path. Trees toppled. Houses were flattened. Roofs were sent whirling through the air. Rain furiously pounded the ground. Whipped up by the raging winds, the sea crushed wharves and bridges. Peaceful rivers became swollen torrents, drowning roads and farm plantations.
The Solomon Islands had been attacked by a killer named Namu—a tropical cyclone. The assault began on the weekend of May 17, 18, 1986—the date of a two-day circuit assembly of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Honiara, Guadalcanal Island. As it turned out, the timing of this assembly proved lifesaving for some.
‘Don’t Go This Way!’
“Saturday started off like any rainy day in the Solomon Islands,” recalled Roland Cent, a minister of Jehovah’s Witnesses. “We were looking forward to the circuit assembly and were not concerned about the weather.” (Attendance at the assembly was 491.) But by the end of the assembly, it became apparent that this was no ordinary rainstorm.
“I learned that a cyclone had passed by us and was stationary on the other side of Guadalcanal,” says Cent. Witnesses from Tetere, located about 19 miles (30 km) east of Honiara, were thus stranded, the roads already becoming flooded. Most therefore stayed overnight in Honiara, in a safe area called Foxwood about 9 miles (15 km) from the assembly site.
Roland Cent lives in the Foxwood area. So after driving his family home, he returned to the assembly location to help another family return to their home. But he soon found that traveling had become impossible. “The rivers were all riding high,” he recalled. “At the Ngalibiu River, logs were starting to get jammed against the bridge. A driver coming from the other side urged us not to go that way! So I took the family back to my home on high ground.”
Panic in C.D.C.
C.D.C. is a housing settlement on the Ngalibiu River. Most of the inhabitants of C.D.C. went to bed Sunday night not unduly concerned about the heavy rains. However, two men, whose homes sat right at the edge of the riverbank did not sleep. With great anxiety they watched the river rise ominously.
But by 3:00 a.m. the water had receded. The two men went to sleep. One was then awakened by a phone call at 5:00 a.m. To his horror, he could see that his garden was now covered with water! He and his wife immediately jumped into their car and drove to a place of safety near Foxwood.
But what about the other man whose home was close to the riverbank? His name is James Sulimae and he is one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. He, too, was awakened and ran to warn his neighbors. Packing his truck with frightened families, he headed for safety near Foxwood. Twice he returned to evacuate others.
The Morning After
“Monday dawned with much rain and high winds,” Roland Cent recalled. “The call went out to help move people from C.D.C., and I was able to manage two rescue runs there myself. People literally threw themselves into the back of the truck! Men were crying, women and children could be heard screaming.” It was not hard to see why. The bridge over the Ngalibiu River had now become a massive dam and floodwaters threatened to drown everyone!
Not all were evacuated, though. Sonia Dixon, another Witness living in C.D.C., said: “We were prepared for what we thought were going to be some minor inconveniences, such as a flooded garden. However, when families started to arrive at our two-story house for shelter, we realized things were serious. By 10:00 a.m. we had a river running through our garden!
“I got busy caring for the needs of about 22 people, including 3 infants. Some actually swam up to our veranda. They were helped inside, dried off, given hot coffee and food. While helping me, my husband Peter was anxiously watching the water level, using the handle of our clothes pole as a measuring stick. Swept along by the rushing river, huge logs began pounding the house.
“Peter’s face was white, and I had a knot of fear in my stomach. Peter took our eight-year-old daughter Elizabeth aside and prayed with her. Another Witness from our congregation and I also prayed. The water kept getting deeper. Suddenly a way of rescue opened! The logs began to back up against a large hibiscus hedge surrounding our garden. The dammed up water was now diverted and began flowing past our front veranda, about 15 yards [14 m] away. This saved our lives.”
Witnesses Help Others
His rescue services no longer needed in C.D.C., Cent returned home. There, three other families—refugees from the storm—had settled in with his family. Other Witness families similarly extended hospitality to their neighbors. One family took up to 48 refugees into their home, looking after them and feeding them.
Some Witnesses risked their lives for their neighbors. Three Witnesses who were helping some people escape the river were themselves suddenly swept into the torrent. However, they were caught in a whirlpool that carried them back to land!
“Now the cyclone swung around,” says Cent, “and hit us with its full fury. The roof of a house 200 yards [180 m] from us was lost to the wind, taking power lines with it. That was the last power we had for a week. The wind and rain raged most of Monday night. But on Tuesday the rain had stopped.”
Sonia recalls that by the third day the water had receded a bit. “Who should appear but Elson Site, a full-time minister and Christian elder, along with three young men from our congregation! They brought us a big bunch of bananas and a bag of potatoes. When they realized we were short of water, they disappeared and came back three hours later with bottles and plastic containers full of drinking water.” By Friday, Sonia and her family were finally able to leave their house.
The Aftermath of the Storm
The killer Namu had finished its work. The inhabitants of the islands could begin digging themselves out of the ruins, tallying their losses and counting the dead. Over one hundred were dead. Some 90,000 were left homeless. Farming industries vital to the economy had been crippled.
Jehovah’s Witnesses were among those who lost homes, food, and gardens. Ten of their Kingdom Halls, where they meet for worship, sustained damage. But no Witnesses were killed. Witnesses in nearby Papua New Guinea and Australia soon sent tons of food supplies. The assembly had proved providential for Witnesses from Tetere. They had ridden out the storm in the relative safety of Foxwood.
It was thus a moving moment for Sonia and her family to go to their damaged Kingdom Hall two days later for worship. “I felt choked with emotion,” Sonia recalls, “as we sang a song, the last sentence of which reads: ‘If the weak we do assist, God will us sustain.’”
[Picture on page 16]
Half of Ngalibiu bridge washed away during cyclone Namu
[Picture on page 17]
Cyclone Namu washed this ship ashore at Honiara