Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Young survivor of the Solomon Islands flash floods tells his story

Isiah Andrew at West Kola-Ridge. © UNICEF Pacific/2014/ATahu
Isiah Andrew, 8 years old, may be one of the youngest to survive the dreadful flash floods that swept hundreds of homes away in the Solomon Islands, leaving 17 people dead, 30 missing and an estimated 12,000 people homeless as of yesterday.

Isiah lives with his parents in Wagina, a settlement in Choiseul province. A week before the floods, he came to Honiara to spend his one week school break with his sister as he always does. But little did he know, this holiday would be a haunting one for the rest of his life.

His sister lives with her husband’s family, 3 to 4 kilometres upstream from the Matanikau River bank. Last Thursday afternoon (3 April), Isiah said he was sitting on a ladder into the river when all of a sudden the water level increased.

“I was shocked to see how fast the river rose,” he recalled. “I could not run anywhere because the house was now surrounded with water and there were pieces of metal and scraps all over the place crushing against each other.”

Isiah, who is still in shock, said everything happened so fast that the next thing he remembered was holding on tightly to a coconut tree trunk with the flood rising rapidly around him.

“I was trying my best to hold on to the coconut tree trunk but the current was so strong. Pieces of metal, grass, mud, and plastics were all over me. I could also see our house collapsing. It was then that I decided to let go because the house might collapse on me.”
Powerless to help

A neighbour who has a house a few meters inland on high ground said that as much as they wanted to help the boy, they could not rescue him because the flood came in very fast and rose very rapidly. “We stood there helpless and the worst part was seeing the boy letting go of the coconut tree and disappearing into the water,” Isiye's neighbour said.

Isiah explained he felt helpless and for the very first time in his life felt alone and afraid as he was being cruelly tossed by the flood rage. “All that time, I kept thinking of my mom and dad and that’s why I regained my strength,” he said.

All that is left of Isiah sister’s house after the flash floods.
© UNICEF Pacific/2014/ATahu
In a split of a second, Isiah made the decision to be strong and instead of fighting against the current he swam along with it as fast as he could. He then struggled to surface. Taking three to four deep breaths, then diving down into the raging river, swimming downstream with all the debris. “I kept on saying in my mind swim, swim, swim, and don’t stop.” 

When Isiah came up to catch his breath he was surprised to see that the water was level with the old bridge. “The bridge was right in front of me so I had no other option but to quickly dive again because if I didn’t the flood would have smashed me into the bridge.”

The flood was so severe that when he came up for air the second time he was under the new bridge. He then swam towards a log and drifted out to sea. “I looked back and I could see both ends of Honiara from White River to Lungga. I then tried as much as possible to stay alive.”

After floating for several hours on the log, out at sea, a fishing boat came to his rescue. Later that day Isiah found out that three of his younger nieces and nephew, together with their grandfather were still missing.

Today, their bodies have been recovered and families and friends have gathered to provide support and comfort. Brave Isiah said that he would have traded his life for his little nieces and nephew, describing how much he will miss them.

All that is left of the family’s house which was built with modern material is its cement foundation. Survivors of his family are taking refuge at their relative’s home.

Emergency response

Honiara Township and the whole of Guadalcanal was declared a disaster area by the Minister of Environment, Climate Change, Disaster Management and Meteorology. Food, water clothing and cooking utensils are urgently needed in the evacuation centres. Relief efforts are currently underway.

UNICEF is supporting the Government of Solomon Islands to respond to the pressing needs of more than 50,000 people, including 24,000 children, affected by the flash flooding on 3-5 April 2014.

More than 12,000 people are camping in evacuation centres and are in need of shelter, food, water, clean sanitation facilities, health care and stress counselling. Schools were also damaged or are in use as evacuation centres.

UNICEF aims to help to bring children back to school and normalcy as soon as possible. Children in the Solomon Islands desperately need your help. You can donate here.

The authorAtenia Tahu, Communication for Development Officer, Solomon Islands

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