Day Trip: Kayangel After the Storm

Recently, I hitched a ride up to Kayangel, Palau’s northernmost state, an island atoll that was heavily damaged by last year’s record-breaking Super Typhoon Haiyan. I had been enchanted with Kayangel ever since I learned it was the source of Palau’s amazing and many-specied bananas, which are so superior to the mass-produced Cavendish we’re fed in the U.S. I don’t know how I’ll go back. (In his excellent book, Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed The World, reporter Dan Koeppel aptly terms this bland, mass-produced variety the “the hotel banana.”)

Palau grows four varieties of banana with names like “bungeltuu” and “blangtalos.” Some are pinky-sized. Some are for cooking. All are delicious.

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On an island where tropical fruits are mostly limited to a few hardy varieties of coconut, banana, lemon, and green papaya (heavily leached volcanic soil, it turns out, does not make for ideal growing conditions), the post-typhoon banana shortage, for everyone, was a real bummer. For Kayangel, it was devastating–a primary food supply destroyed, along with every home and building on the island.

It’s a three hour ride to Kayangel by state boat, but my friend Chris and I tagged along with a couple of U.S. Navy guys who were going by speedboat, a free hour-and-a-half ride in exchange for some manual labor. We spent most of the day dismantling a super-high-tech, $1.5 million surveillance tower designed to monitor illegal fishing. No big deal.

View on arrival: the telephone company's tower

View on arrival: the telephone company’s tower

The tiny island—actually, four tiny islands with a combined land mass of 0.7 square miles, according to one of my maps—is definitely still in recovery mode. Before the storm, most of the people of Kayangel were evacuated to Koror, and many have chosen to remain on the “big” island, closer to creature comforts like a high school, grocery store, post office, and other amenities you won’t find on a secluded 0.7-square-mile atoll. As a result, the population of Kayangel has dwindled from about 130 to 53.

Kayangel Shed

Kayangel Shed

I imagine those stalwart locals who remain would find the bustle of Koror (city pop. 11,000–although it’s impossible to get straight numbers around here) overwhelming. Even before the typhoon leveled the place, life in Kayangel was quiet, days occupied by fishing, gardening, and island-style chilling. But it’s even more civilization-from-the-ground-up these days. We passed a few kids on bicycles on the single-track dirt roads, a few men napping in the mid-day heat in a communal open-air summer house, and the typical man-made signs of renewal: a makeshift church…

Interim Kayangel Evangelical Church

Interim Kayangel Evangelical Church

…a single village store that shelves sweets, Spam, and a few household necessities…

Convenience Store

Convenience Store: “Credit Limit $50.00”

…and a basketball court currently occupied by prefab siding and other building equipment. Foundations for several new houses have been laid, and workers are making great progress on a new elementary school, which will double as the island’s new typhoon shelter.

New school/typhoon shelter in progress

New school/typhoon shelter in progress

Along the shoreline, the coconut trees look permanently windswept, hundreds of hardy trunks bent at sharp angles toward the sea. The tallest trees–those that survived–stand stark naked and stripped, like giant scarecrows, a reminder of the 300km/hr winds that ripped through the place.

Windswept trees

Windswept trees

But the jungle has a way of bouncing back. I could see, as the boat docked, a low canopy, lush, green and full. I asked a the first person I met about the bananas.

“Bananas!” he replied, nodding and grinning a huge grin. “Coconuts, not yet. But bananas, yes. Bananas we have.”

Kayangel

Kayangel

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After Haiyan

It’s been a strange week around here, punctuated by a bright sun (always strange when the mood on land is one of recovery) and the sounds of rebuilding: hammers, heavyweight trucks, the buzzing of chainsaws. Like the rest of the world, we’re watching for updates from the Philippines. Palau’s service industry labor force is powered by Filipinos, so in addition to the reports we read in the newspapers, everywhere we go we see folks with cell phones in hand and looks of either distress or relief.

The morning after...

The morning after…

Strange cloud action after Haiyan.

Strange cloud action after Haiyan.

For us, thanks to a barrier reef that buffers most of Palau from typhoons and tsunamis, Super Typhoon Haiyan felt a lot like snow days or summer tornado watches back home. We knew it was coming. Businesses closed early on Wednesday so folks could board windows and stock up at the grocery store (by the end of the day, the Spam and potato chip aisles were ransacked and signs read “Out of Ice” and “Sorry, No Water”). Police made rounds at the bars, enforcing a 7 p.m. curfew, and by late evening the lights around the islands went dark. We made dinner with our upstairs neighbors, Megan and Scott, and played board games when the power went out. At midnight, right on schedule, the weather took a distinct turn (turns out even tropical storms are more punctual than Vodickas), and we stood on the balcony to feel the rain and wind grow fierce. Then we went to bed. It was a crummy nights sleep, but aside from the wind howling all night through a crack in the window, and a little water under the door the next day, the storm eluded us.

If you’ve ever been to northern Wisconsin in the wintertime, you have seen the efficiency of a people who know their climate—before a blizzard has even begun, the four-wheel-drive trucks stand ready, the plows are in place, and there’s a whole crew of magical elves who go to work clearing the roads while you sleep.

So it was in Koror the day after Haiyan: when we woke up, the road below us was filled with coconuts and palm trees, but by the time we’d brewed a pot of generator-powered coffee, the chainsaws were roaring, the rakes and brooms were out, the brush was piled. Things are still a little off, but for the most part, recovery was swift.

Things are just a little bit off...

Things are just a little bit off…

Miraculously, no one was hurt, not even the 59 local residents who refused evacuation (I’m told the area’s chief is endowed with power over the weather, so he and his clan were exempt). The President has declared a state of emergency for Kayangel, and efforts are underway to restore power and start the slow process of rebuilding.It’s going to take a lot more time to repair Kayangel, Palau’s northernmost state, a coral atoll located about 100 kilometers north of us, about an hour’s boat ride from the tip of the island. Kayangel is well known in these parts for its distinct natural beauty—serene, uninterrupted beaches, beautiful marine conservation areas, a great variety of banana trees, friendly locals who often invite visitors to stay, and pretty much total quiet. Until Haiyan. Under the eye of the storm, Kayangel suffered total devastation: 100% loss of power, water, and subsistence farming, including taro patches and fruit trees, and almost total destruction of residences and public facilities.

Sending love to Kayangel and the Philippines this week, and feeling grateful that most of Palau was spared. Let’s hope Haiyan was the last typhoon the region sees for a good long time…and that that crew of magic elves likes the tropics.