The buffeting winds and driving rain off the back of downgraded Cyclone Dovi reminded me of what it means to live on an island.
In 2016 I faced a worse storm, a full-blown category-three tropical cyclone, which hit the island of Savai’i where I was living with my wife and her extended family.
I’d become a bit blasé from watching (via a very good weather site using US military forecasts) cyclones form near the Wallis and Futuna islands and head in our direction, only to veer south and pass between Samoa and Fiji, or hit Fiji but not us.
This time I realised something was wrong when our neighbour, Ma’afi, packed up and headed for his family’s fale in the forest. We didn’t have a forest fale in those days, so it looked like we might have to ride it out. I looked at hurricanezone.net and, sure enough, Cyclone Amos was heading straight for us. It was predicted to reach category four before it made landfall.
Soon the wind started tugging at the eaves. It was blowing offshore from the southeast, which was some reassurance, since I wasn’t certain the seawall at the bottom of the section would provide much protection against a storm surge.
Family members came across the road and tied down the section of roof facing the wind.
Soon the strengthening gusts were accompanied by unearthly shrieks as the wind tore around the corners of houses, trees, television masts and the supports of the many open fales of the village. Rain bucketed down, blew in under the front door and flooded the living room.
The ceilings started to ooze, then sag, and we were forced to puncture the kitchen ceiling and release the water, which otherwise would have brought it down.
Then the corrugated iron roof began to perform a Mexican wave, each ripple accompanied by a loud thumping and clattering, suggesting parts would soon become airborne.
Brother-in-law Mika, who had elected to stay with us, closed his eyes and rested his head on his folded arms on our dining-room table.
I paced the living room and our bedroom for what seemed – and probably was – hours.
Then the wind fell off as suddenly as it had arrived, and an army of relatives and fellow villagers appeared, tying the opposite corner of the roof down and hammering nails back into damaged sections.
They retreated as the wind picked up again after the “eye” passed, and we suffered further hellish hours before the rain ceased, the gusts dropped and we watched a vast dark cloud sail off to the southwest, past Mauga Silisili, illuminated by lightning flashes. A breadfruit tree had blown over across the road and another neighbour had lost part of their roof. The next day revealed many trees had blown over in the inland forest that blankets much of Savai’i.
Waiheke residents don’t have the same need for reliance on each other these days. But remnants of that island spirit were evident in the way people pitched in and helped clear the wreckage of both the Rosalie Clare and Marauder – two recent marine casualties – and the many offers of help and messages of support to those in need or trouble on the island’s community Facebook pages.
We are a community after all. That I need to state this says volumes about the erosion of belief in collective action – kotahitanga – that has always been part of te ao Māori and which our parents, who fought in or lived through World War II, understood.
Years of neo-liberalism, voiced most clearly in Margaret Thatcher’s: “There is no such thing as society, only individuals and families,” has led to a belief that individual freedom trumps (pardon the pun) others’ rights. That your right to a peaceful existence on an idyllic island is of less value than the need for a type of progress that will benefit a handful of the ultra-rich, while degrading your environment with audible, visual and, quite possibly, literal pollution. That the natural environment is a resource to be exploited to the point that Coromandel scallops (still so plentiful only a decade back that I could see them clearly from the surface while free diving in eight metres of water near Great Mercury Island)are now apparently near collapse.
The so-called “great generation” didn’t have to be geniuses to see that Nazism and Japanese militarism posed a collective threat. Or that collective action was required to defeat them. They didn’t shout about their rights as individuals or “sovereign citizens” when they volunteered for, or were conscripted into, the military and faced death.
And you don’t have to be Einstein to see that other Horseman of the Apocalpse, pestilence, plague, whatever you call it, also poses a collective threat to our way of life. Or that it requires collective action to defeat it.
“Is there a freedom circus on the island?” I was asked at the weekend.
“No, that’s down in Wellington,” I replied. •