Disaster Strikes the Solomon Islands
On Monday, April 2, 2007, a magnitude 8.1 earthquake rocked parts of the Solomon Islands, a tropical archipelago northeast of Australia. Within minutes, towering walls of water, some reportedly 30 feet [10 m] high, smashed into islands in the Western Province, killing 52 people and leaving 6,000 homeless.
Among the hardest hit was Gizo, a coastal town of about 7,000 inhabitants on Ghizo Island, just 28 miles [45 km] from the quake epicenter. A small congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Gizo was looking forward to observing the annual Memorial of Jesus’ death that evening. (1 Corinthians 11:23–26) The day began normally with a beautiful sunrise and calm seas. Then, at 7:39 a.m. local time, the quake struck.
Ron Parkinson, a congregation elder, and his wife, Dorothy, were preparing breakfast when the quake hit. “Our old house swayed like a coconut palm but stayed upright,” says Ron. “The noise was incredible. Cupboards, furniture, crockery, an upright piano, and other movable objects crashed to the floor. With great effort, we made our way outside. Dorothy slashed her bare feet on broken glass.”
Missionaries Tony and Christine Shaw, who live nearby, also rushed outside. “The earth shook so violently that I fell to the ground and couldn’t get up,” says Christine. “Out to sea, houses were floating in the water. A huge wave had torn them from their foundations. People in canoes paddled desperately among the wreckage as they were looking for survivors. Then another huge earthquake occurred—and then another. The aftershocks continued for five days. It was terrifying!”
Then Came the Tsunami
Patson Baea was on his island home of Sepo Hite, about four miles [6 km] from Gizo, when the earthquake hit. How did Patson and his family fare during this disaster?
Patson recalls the ordeal: “I ran along the shore toward my wife, Naomi, and our four children. They had been thrown to the ground but were safe. The children were shaking, and some were crying. Naomi and I quickly reassured them.
“I noticed that the sea was moving abnormally. A tsunami was clearly on its way. Our tiny island would likely be swamped. My mother, Evalyn, who lived on a small island close by, was also in danger. I quickly ordered our family into our motorized canoe and set off to rescue her.
“After we traveled a short distance, a huge surge of water passed beneath our canoe. The sea heaved and swirled. When we reached my mother, she was dazed and confused and too frightened to enter the water. Naomi and Jeremy, our 15-year-old son, dived into the strong current and helped her swim to the canoe. Then, gunning the engine at full power, we headed out to sea.
“By now the sea had retreated to an unprecedented level, exposing coral reefs around the islands. Suddenly, an enormous surge of water swept in, swamping both islands. Our waterfront guesthouse was torn from its foundations and smashed beyond repair. Water surged through our family home, ruining many of our possessions. When the sea subsided, we salvaged Bibles and songbooks from our damaged house and made our way to Gizo.”
Death and destruction lay along the coastline. The western side of Ghizo Island bore the brunt of the damage. At least 13 villages there were wiped out by a wall of water reportedly 15 feet [5 m] high!
That night, 22 persons gathered at the Gizo Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses to observe the Memorial of Jesus’ death. Happily, none of this number had been seriously injured by the disaster. “There was no electricity, and our kerosene lamps were broken,” says Ron, quoted earlier. “So Brother Shaw gave the talk by flashlight. In the dark, we sang songs of thanks to Jehovah, with strong voices and multipart harmony.”
When news of the disaster reached Honiara, the national capital, the local branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses moved swiftly to provide emergency relief. Telephone calls quickly confirmed the safety of most of the Witnesses in the affected areas. Reliable individuals were dispatched to locate a very isolated Witness living on Choiseul Island. She was eventually found safe and sound. Funds were also sent to Gizo to buy emergency supplies.
Branch representatives arrived in Gizo on Thursday on the first available flight. “We carried several boxes of relief supplies with us,” says Craig Tucker, a member of the Branch Committee. “Other passengers had luggage left behind because of weight restrictions, but to our relief, all our boxes arrived safely. They were among the first shipments of aid to arrive in the disaster area. Additional equipment arrived two days later by boat.”
Meanwhile, Tony Shaw and Patson Baea, along with other Witnesses from Gizo, traveled two hours by canoe to assist isolated Witnesses living on the island of Ranongga. The force of the earthquake had lifted this island, which is 20 miles [32 km] long and 5 miles [8 km] wide, over 6 feet [2 m] higher out of the sea! The sudden displacement of water around the island evidently produced the tsunami that struck surrounding islands.
“The members of the congregation were overjoyed to see us,” says Tony. “They were safe and sound and living outdoors because of the fear of aftershocks. Ours was the first boat to bring relief supplies. Before leaving, we joined in a heartfelt prayer of thanks to Jehovah.”
Patson says: “Several days later, we returned to Ranongga to bring additional supplies and to search for a Witness family who lived at a remote end of the island. We finally found Matthew Itu and his family camping deep in the bush. They wept for joy, knowing that we had not forgotten them! The earthquake had destroyed their home along with most of the buildings in their village. However, their main concern was to replace their family Bibles, which were lost in the disaster.”
Praise From Onlookers
Such Christian love did not go unnoticed by others. “One journalist who was critical of the general relief effort was surprised and impressed to learn that Jehovah’s Witnesses had supplied their members with food, tarpaulins, and other essential items within days of the quake,” says Craig Tucker. “Villagers on Ranongga commented favorably on our rapid relief effort and lamented the lack of support from their own church,” adds Patson. One woman exclaimed, “Your organization was so quick to respond!”
The Witnesses also reached out to assist their neighbors. “While visiting the makeshift hospital in Gizo, we saw a married couple whom we had recently met,” relates Christine Shaw. “Both were injured and badly traumatized. The woman’s grandchild had been torn from her by the tsunami and had drowned. We quickly returned home to bring them needed food and clothing. They were most grateful.”
Indeed, victims of natural disasters need more than just material relief. They especially need the comfort that only God’s Word, the Bible, can provide. “Some religious ministers were saying that God was punishing the people for their sins,” says Ron. “But we showed them from the Bible that God is never the source of wickedness. Many thanked us for sharing this spiritual comfort with them.”—2 Corinthians 1:3, 4; James 1:13.*
See the article “‘Why?’—Answering the Hardest of Questions,” in the November 2006 issue of Awake! pages 3–9. Hundreds of copies of this issue were distributed in Gizo after the disaster.
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Baea family in their motorized canoe
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Tsunami damage at Gizo
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This Kingdom Hall was the only building left standing at Lale on Ranongga Island