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Cyclone Zoë

Emma Grey

For a worryingly long time in the last few days, my friends’ 18-year-old daughter, Zoë, was unaccounted for in Vanuatu. Category 5 Super Cyclone Pam had ripped through and destroyed much of the country, including the village in which she was volunteering on the remote island of Pentecost, during her self-funded gap year.

Zoë’s final text to her parents, Alison and Rob, apologised for the early hour and let them know she’d received a ‘Cat 5 warning’ that should ‘hit us tonight’.

After that—nothing.

For eight of the longest days of Alison and Rob’s life—no contact. As a friend, it was almost unbearably painful to watch.

When disasters happen, people rise to the occasion. Strangers open their hearts. People feel deep empathy for the families. They do everything they can to help, even if that’s just to share a news article with everyone they know in the hope that someone will be able to make a difference.

The news worsened when we learned that the in-country coordinator for Lattitude (the volunteer organisation to which Zoë and eighteen other teens are attached) had lost his home and all of his belongings. His wife and two children under five were living in an emergency shelter.

I don’t know a soul in Vanuatu, and have never visited, but I believe strongly in the power of human connection. I believe in six degrees of separation. Without a belief in these bonds between strangers, we wouldn’t have ended up with a worn bandana from Harry Styles late last year to give to my daughter’s best friend as she battled leukaemia.

And I believe very strongly in asking for help.

Minutes after sharing Zoë’s plight with my friends, one of the women in my online mums’ group sent a message. Her parents own a house in Vanuatu. It was still standing—and they wanted the Lattitude organisation to use it. They instructed the caretaker to ‘do everything you can to help these people’.

This couple—complete strangers—comforted Alison over the phone, on several occasions. The volunteer coordinator and his family now had a roof over their heads, but there was still no news of Zoë.

It wasn’t until a week after the cyclone had hit that an Australian Defence Force helicopter was able to fly over the island and find and rescue five of the volunteers. Zoë wasn’t amongst them.

Then, later that night came beautiful news that the chopper crew had spotted Zoë and her friend Courtney, from New Zealand, but the girls were too close to a cliff in very rugged terrain, so the helicopter was unable to land. A note was dropped, with instructions on where to hike the next morning to a clearing where they could be rescued. At this stage they’d been over a week with dwindling supplies and no shelter, and two full days without food or water.

The news the next day that her elated parents had finally heard Zoë’s voice is one of life’s sweetest moments. It was as beautiful as the time an Instagram pic popped up on Christmas Eve last year, with an image of my daughter’s friend holding a poster proclaiming that she was cancer-free.

It can be so easy to feel overwhelmed by the world’s problems. So easy to feel helpless. But we forget that not everything we do needs to be a ‘giant leap for mankind’. Small steps matter just as much. A caring text message. Some home-made soup. Somewhere to stay.

After their rescue, Zoë and the other volunteers were given the option of returning home. They wouldn’t have it.

“There’s so much to be done here,” she explained to her proud parents.

Zoë will continue to see out her gap-year experience in Vanuatu, making a difference for some of the poorest families in the world. Families who had very little when she first arrived, and now have even less.

To them, she’ll be the angel who helped rebuild their lives when they needed help the most. The young girl who faced Vanuatu’s second strongest storm and stood firm.

And which was the strongest storm on record?

Cyclone Zoë, of course… Had to be.

“Though she be little, she is fierce” – William Shakespeare.


Emma Grey

Emma Grey is the Canberra-based author of ‘Wits’ End Before Breakfast! Confessions of a Working Mum’ and ‘Unrequited: Girl Meets Boy Band’. She’s director of the life-balance consultancy, WorkLifeBliss and co-founder of a fresh approach to time-management, My 15 Minutes. She lives just over the ACT border with her two teen daughters and young son. More about the Author

  • You haven’t disappointed, Emma. This story has brought tears to my eyes and a renewed determination to be grateful for the good things in life.

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