Cyclone Pam plowed through the SW central Pacific, battering the island nation of Kiribati before strengthening and hitting Vanuatu head on. At its strongest the cyclone generated winds up to 200 miles and hour and waves over 15 feet high. While the media focused on the destruction in Vanuatu, Kiribati was largely ignored. While Cyclone Pam did not directly hit Tarawa or any of the other islands in Kiribati, the waves Pam left in her wake pummeled and flowed over parts of the island and others that rise out of the ocean by only a few meters.
“I have never seen this kind of destruction from waves here in Kiribati,” Dr. Kautu Tenaua, Kiribati minister of health reported. “We had to conduct an emergency evacuation of our maternity ward at Betio Hospital because water was pounding the outside of the building and crashing through doors and windows. It was frightening and horrible.”
Betio Hospital is a 23-bed hospital serving about 20,000 in a very densely populated area. It is a very old, colonial hospital that has been over capacity for a while. The beds are always 100% occupied and very often there is only space on the floors for patients.
Before the storm the hospital housed a 16-bed main ward, an 8-bed observation ward and a maternity ward allowing for 16-20 deliveries per month. Two doctors, 22 nurses (5 per shift) saw 60-70 patients a day on average; there are 15 nurses/midwives for the maternity ward. The hospital lacks x-ray and ultrasound machines and has only a small laboratory.