January 4thof 2004 is etched into the memories of Niueans, the day seventeen years ago when the most powerful cyclone ever witnessed destroyed the west coast of the island, killing one young nurse Cathy Alec. Her nineteen-month son, found nestled in her arms in the ruins of their home at Aliluki succumbed to his injuries a few days later and passed away in hospital in New Zealand. Today we remember Cathy Alec and her son Daniel.
The cyclone struck Niue just after midday on a Monday. Waves towering over 20 metre cliffs destroying the entire stretch of the west coast from Hikutavake to Avatele but the most devastation was seen in the Alofi south area where the Huanaki cultural centre, the government offices of the Lands, Surveys and Justice department, the Lord Liverpool hospital and the government owned residences were located.
Many of the residents of Alofi south still find it difficult to talk about this day. For some it’s a day they would rather forget, to forget the trauma of scrambling through the dark forest seeking higher grounds while waves described as tsunami-like crashed around them.
Some of the residents of Aliluki including an elderly couple injured sheltered with family and friends in the government’s library and archives. A couple of people sheltered in a flipped over water tank and another sheltered in a tree waiting for the waves to calm down before seeking higher grounds.
The feeling of loss was overwhelming in the bright and fierce reality of the morning after. It was like waking up to a nightmare, driving from Avatele to Alofi, normally a ten minutes drive took nearly an hour, navigating fallen trees and debris. The landscape was almost unrecognisable, the landmark trees and buildings no longer there. The petrol station was destroyed (pictured left) and vehicles crushed like tin cans littered our neighbourhood Aliluki which after a few days looked like a scene from a war movie.
I remember leaving my car somewhere because there were large bolders and trees on the road. Our neighbourhood Aliluki was unrecognisable. Most of the houses were reduced to rubble, to our left stood our neighbour the Westpac Manager’s residence with Vaine Pasisi, their house was still standing but what used to be our home was completely destroyed. There’s black sand and debris everywhere, there’s a big tree trunk where our linen cupboard and bathtub used to be. Our neighbours to the right was the foundation of what used to be the home of Dr. Athena Andrews and her husband Joe.
Across the road were the rubble of where our neighbour Cathy and her son Daniel used to live, next door to Ida and Morgan Mougavalu who nearly lost their little girl that morning as the waves dragged her, but the swift actions of her Dad grabbing her and holding on to the cloths line.
This morning I took my seventeen year old son to Aliluki park. I showed him where we used to live and told him what happened that morning. It’s a story he and his siblings have heard many times before but he listens. Just as there’s other families today recalling their memories of January 4th I remember what used to be our home and our neighbours and how things changed after this day. A few weeks later on February 10th, I gave birth to my son at the make-shift hospital where the Niue Youth Centre is.