Cyclone Martin, the most tragic storm to hit the Cook Islands in recorded history, hit the island on November 1, 1997, the opening day of the official cyclone season. And few were prepared for the wave that rose up out of the sea and higher than the coconut trees, then left again, taking with it homes, businesses, boats, and people.
Before Martin, Manihiki had a population of nearly 700 and more than 200 thriving pearl farms. Today, the community has dispersed across the Pacific and at home, fewer than 250 residents remain.
Each year, the anniversary of Martin brings people together, both physically and across oceans, binding them through memory and spirit and the shared experience of great loss, deep pain, and determined resilience.
“No new plans for the programme,” Manihiki’s executive officer, Jane Kaina, says via cell phone. “Same thing every year.”
She says this not with a sigh but with tenderness, suggesting there is comfort in the sameness. Each year, prayers are offered up and food is shared and stories are reiterated. It’s a time for people to talk, process, and keep alive the memories of those who were lost.
Puapii William, president of the Manihiki community on Rarotonga, says the service at the Avarua hostel is about remembering, in equal measure, the people who were taken and the ones who were left behind—“us who survive”. Talking to him, I’m reminded that so much of survival is about community.
On Manihiki, nearly everyone will attend a service in one of the atoll’s two villages.
“Nobody stays home,” JeanMarie Williams, a fisherman from Tauhunu, tells me via cell phone. “It’s an event that nobody misses.”
JeanMarie, who speaks so openly about the mistakes made during and after Martin that he sometimes pushes buttons, believes the anniversary is not just ceremonial and congratulatory but also gravely and urgently relevant.
“Everybody has their story,” he says. “Everybody is a hero, we all saved ourselves and all that, but the stories are starting to bend a little bit. What I want to know is: are we ready for the next one? Hopefully we learn from these mistakes so we don’t have to go through it all over again.”
The anniversary reminds him not only of the mistakes, but also of what was done right—the remembered, tried-and-true strategies that succeeded where modern forms of disaster management would have failed. Twenty-one years have passed since Cyclone Martin, and he fears that people have forgotten.
“Now we have a cyclone centre and the mentality now is everybody run to the cyclone centre,” he says. “Cyclone centres don’t ride waves. Boats ride waves.”
He’s referring here to the safest place to be during a storm when you’re on an atoll without high ground: in a boat tied to a coconut tree. This was how many survived Martin. They had never lived through a storm like that, but knew what to do because of the stories their elders told.
In 2015, I was commissioned by the Cyclone Martin Charitable Trust and Cook Islands News to write a book about Martin. In more than 140 interviews with survivors and responders, what continually struck me was the value of old ways knowing and doing. Jean Toma-Tuarae, who had been Manihiki’s chief administrative officer when Martin came, told me at the time: “Maybe it’s in our genes to confront any hurricane, because that’s how our forefathers lived, because the islands always get hurricanes. And we’ve learnt over the years how to survive. If you want to live on these islands, you’ve got to know how to survive.”
There are lessons in the story of Cyclone Martin about disaster preparedness, but also about life on the outer islands and how our modern systems are making us less responsible for noticing the signs the earth and sea give, knowing how to adapt when the weather changes, and feeling always the weight of proven wisdom.
In researching Matini, I talked to climate scientists about projections that cyclones will intensify in coming years and the increasing importance of learning from events like Martin. What survivor Ron Powell told me summarises why this week’s ceremonies are not only sequestered rituals but also relevant for everyone in the Cook Islands and Pacific.
“The weather will seem fine,” he predicted when I interviewed him, “and they will forget.”
This is why remembering Martin matters.
- Rachel Reeves