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INTRODUCTION

A number of hurricanes are known to have impacted on Tuvalu during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Unfortunately only two of these hurricanes were recorded in terms of the impact on Tuvalu and in particular Funafuti. The first of these was the 1883 Hurricane experienced by George Westbrook, an English trader who recorded his recollections in Julian Dana's book: Gods Who Die. The second recorded hurricane was Hurricane Bebe which devastated Funafuti on Saturday, 21st October 1972.

         

There has, however been other hurricanes that have impacted severely on Funafuti. Captain Davis of Royalist who visited the Ellice Group in 1892 made the following record in the ship's diary:

"37. The Ellice Group in February 1891 was almost devastated by a severe hurricane, during the lifetime of the oldest inhabitant. This is the only one that has occurred."

In terms of this observation it would appear that Captain Davis's normally most astute perceptions were not fully utilized in that he was not advised of the hurricane of 1883 which one would imagine would be well within the lifetime of the oldest inhabitant mentioned in the paragraph above.

Tuvaluan historian and authority Pasoni Taafaki in Tuvalu - A History also makes mention of a devastating hurricane in 1894.

Consequently, there would appear to have been at least four hurricanes to have impacted on Tuvalu and in particular Funafuti during the last two centuries. These occurred in the years 1883, 1891, 1894 and 1972.

The material that follows relates only to the Hurricanes of 1883 and 1972 for which a detailed record of some of the inhabitants' experiences are available.

The following notes record the experiences of Mr. George Westbrook who was an English trader on Funafuti in 1883 when the hurricane struck. It was indeed a most interesting experience as almost all the population of Funafuti Island were involved in building a Church on the nearby islet of Funafala. Consequently the loss of human life was avoided.

The fourth hurricane was called Bebe and hit Funafuti on Saturday, 21st October 1972. The experience was recorded by a number of Funafuti citizens whose stories are reproduced below.

The original record was prepared by Mr. Pasefika Falani, an elder of the island of Funafuti, Tuvalu, in his book - The Hurricane In Funafuti, Tuvalu. This book contains an account of the short visit of Hurricane Bebe to Tuvalu, particularly to the Island of Funafuti on the 21st  October 1972. The thought of writing the book originated in the "Maneapa" (traditional meeting house) during the 1988 Hurricane Festival when the"old men" of Funafuti conceded to the idea of a written record of the calamity. It was felt that a written-down account would be more accurate in the process of transmitting from generation rather than through words of mouth.

The hurricane's visit was brief, a duration of only about eight hours to ten hours, yet the impact was totally beyond the imagination. Trees were uprooted, houses were destroyed in no time at all, ships at the lagoon at that time were blown to shore despite resistance from the engines and anchors. The wind speed was believed to have exceeded 180 miles per hour. The devastation was unbelievable, a memory that will remain in the minds of the Tuvalu people for many years to come.

A hurricane was totally foreign to the minds of the Tuvaluans of the twentieth century. The 1972 visit was a real shock to the people of Tuvalu. It was for that very reason that it has become one of the most important festivals. It connects specifically with the people's Christian belief in God's continuing love and care. They believed that their survival was because of their faith and trust in God. The Island of Funafuti is a tiny coral atoll; the width is only about 20 meters at the narrowest parts, and about 300-400 meters at the widest areas of the island. The island could have been totally destroyed together with all life on it. The people believed that God chose not to destroy them, that God cared for them. The hurricane festival which is commemorated each year is thus an occasion of Thanksgiving in honour of the Almighty God for His love and care during the hours of the ordeal.

Tuvalu And The Hurricanes

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(E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 17th May 2004)