This week has not been a normal week.
In my last post, I explained that I was off to see my friend spend the evening being a mermaid.
It turned out that this would not be the most exciting thing to happen this week.
On Friday afternoon I spied a depression alert on Facebook. A Tropical depression forms when multiple weather systems collide. They are a common occurrence in the Pacific and usually bring with them sticky days, heavy rain and high winds. Move over Wales, although you used to be my personal reference point for world levels of dampness, nothing that you threw at me in 15 years of habitation can match the ferocity of the rain we get here. This is the type of rain you can smell coming, rolls like a snare drum and catches you off guard, soaking you to the skin in 5 seconds flat. During this kind of event, it is not uncommon to have to ring out your knickers after attempting to travel even the shortest of distances.
‘But it isn’t depression season!’ my friends declared. ‘We can’t have a depression!’ And yes, technically depression season ended last month, but it seems that this one was not paying due attention to its calendar. The French bureaucrats were very upset. An untimely storm is really quite a nuisance.
After some gentle mocking, I wandered home and went to bed.
Saturday morning, I awoke and checked the weather. It seemed that the depression was still quite depressed and taking its misery out on Vanuatu, resulting in some major sogginess. It looked like it would be hanging around and moping for a good while yet.
I went out for brunch with a friend and watched the rain. I informed her of said depression. We laughed about it. Seen as it was raining she kindly offered to take me shopping.
The nearest supermarket is about 20 mins uphill walk from my house. Most weeks I take pride in doing the majority of my shopping on foot, in the vain hope that walking for 40 minutes whilst weight down with shopping in 30° heat counts as double exercise, but my enthusiasm for this wains dramatically when the heavens open.
In the few minutes between finishing lunch and grabbing my shopping list, I hastened to look at the forecast again.
Things had changed.
The language they were using to describe the event had escalated and the words: ‘cyclone’ and ‘category 4’ were starting to infiltrate news reports. And more alarmingly the words ‘menace’, ‘extreme force’, ‘high risk’ and ‘grave danger’ were appearing close to the word Noumea.
Right. OK then. Things are getting serious. We could be in for a rough few days.
I immediately channelled my inner girl guide and got myself prepared.
A week’s worth of candles, water and non-perishable food were added to the shopping list and duly purchased. I found the spare gas for the camping stove and what turned out to be quite an impressive collection of torches and batteries. I tried filling the bath with water. Turns out the bath plug doesn’t work and I realised I have never actually used the bath…
At this point, the powers that be had decided that this depression was going to annoy people enough to deserve a name, and ‘Cyclone Cook’ was born (a little ironic that the potential biggest cyclone to hit New Caledonia since 2003 would be called Cook).
It was, however, a beautiful day so I went for a walk. The prospect of a cyclone did not seem particularly likely, but with the prospect of impending doom, I took some pictures just in case a before and after was required.
The news and predictions were, however, starting to show a rather different picture. By Saturday night it was getting clear that the cyclone was not going to go away, it was strengthening and on a direct course for New Caledonia and Noumea, due to make landfall late Monday night. The entire country was put on pre-alert, the first level of our three-level system, which basically translates to ‘get your shit together in the next 48 hours things might get a bit hairy’.
Cue the expat community to start getting a little bit antsy. But then I think that is really quite a reasonable response to predicted 200kph winds, 6-metre waves, 350mm rains and UN reports estimating the humanitarian impact to be in excess of 50 000, of which we could all potentially be one.
By Sunday I had had no less than 4 people suggest to me that large waves might pose somewhat of a problem to my house and that advanced levels of preparation would be required. I systematically cleared everything from outside my house and then helped my friend clear her balcony and then we started to play the game of which would be safer: a flat on the 2nd floor of the highest hill in the area (good for flooding, bad for wind) or my house (sheltered from the wind, but close to a river and the sea). This is not the form of top trumps that I enjoy playing.
By Monday morning I was getting quite worried. Multiple people had convinced me that might house may well be under water in less than 24 hours and until 8am on Monday morning, I was still unsure as to whether I was expected to go to work. We weighed up the options and decided my friend’s house would be the best option so I cleared everything that sat below a metre in my house, packed my bag and waited until 12pm, when Alerte 1 was deployed. Alerte 1 is the point where the government tell everyone to stop being bravado-filled idiots and go home. I closed the door and walked away from my home slightly nervous about what it would look like the next time I saw it and collected people and things from various homes in order to form ‘team cyclone’.
And then we waited.
It turns out that concentration on work tasks is rather difficult when faced with an impending Cyclone, which was definitely by this point being reported as a category 4. Look Mum! We even made it to the Australian news: Cyclone Cook! The next few hours were spent checking for updates and drinking tea.
At about 4 pm we lost power.
SO IT BEGINS.
Our 4th party invitee was not yet with us, so Connie and I bravely decided to go and get her in conditions that seemed like they were rapidly deteriorating. We returned unscathed 20 minutes later and so did the power.
We watched the storm until it got dark or became unwise to do so. Something smashed. We gasped. The wind howled. For some reason, my friend’s toilet turned into a wind tunnel.
At 8pm we entered into Alerte 2, the final and highest alert. Full lockdown. This shit just got real….
…..Except it kinda didn’t.
As time plodded on things got quieter. The electric didn’t go out. We watched a film. Nothing happened. We cooked dinner. It got quieter. Are we in the eye? No that would be stupid. It got quieter still. We played games.
At midnight it was almost silent and we decided to go to bed. The eye had passed 50km further away than predicted and all was calm.
Day dawned. Alerte 2 was lifted. We were greeted by this beautiful sight:
Work was cancelled and the danger was over. We drove by my house to make sure it wasn’t underwater and then proceeded to have a lovely leisurely brunch before venturing out to assess the damage. Noumea was in a jovial state with everyone enjoying the free day off.
A few trees were down, with a very small light one leaning on my roof. The sea defences at Anse Vata had taken a beating, but it appears that Noumea has had a reprieve.
The rest of the country did not fare so well, with over 20000 without power for 3 days, a few injuries and one death. Some of the roads are still inaccessible and there was significant damage to The Loyalty Islands. But this seems rather light compared to what could have happened.
Cyclone survivors met in the pub Tuesday evening to report on the events. Everyone was outwardly a little bit upset that things had not been as dramatic as they could have been, but inwardly I think everyone was relieved that experiencing a direct hit from a category 4 cyclone is not something that we can tick off our bucket lists just yet….
Big love from a very safe and cyclone free Noumea.
Until the next time…