Covered by the Sea: Surviving a Hurricane – Part 35
Rarotonga is one of the most beautiful islands in the South Pacific. It is only nineteen miles around, but it is spectacular. At the island’s center green volcanic crags tower above the surrounding palms. Avarua, Rarotonga’s picturesque village, faces the sea. On one of Avarua’s shaded residential streets, set back a quarter mile from the water, Ron and Elizabeth Powell quietly enjoy their retirement.
Alongside their immaculate two-story Dutch Colonial home sits a lovely eighteen-foot lapstrike skiff. Ron built both the house and the boat himself. For years he supplemented his income by fishing for tuna. He manufactured and sold curios and worked as a fishery officer, photographer, sailor, house builder, boat builder, and plumber. He also was employed by the United States government and the United Nations in Micronesia, teaching the local people how to fish commercially.
Ron and Elizabeth sit together on a settee in their cool, high-ceilinged living room. In through the open windows a breeze from the sea ruffles the curtains. “When I came to the South Pacific in 1938, during the Depression,” Ron says, “there were no jobs; there wasn’t anything to make a dollar with. It was living off the land, and you had to be good at a lot of things to make do. Fortunately, Elizabeth was pretty wealthy. She was earning fifty dollars a year as a schoolteacher. Fifty dollars a year!” Ron hugs frail Elizabeth and they both laugh as he says, “So I married her for her money!”
Elizabeth, in her seventies, is still a pretty woman. Her dark hair is now tinged with gray, but like most Polynesians, she has not lost her ability to laugh and enjoy life. She was born on tiny Palmerston Island, a granddaughter of William Marsters, the English carpenter who, with his three Polynesian wives, created the first permanent settlement there. Two hundred and fifty miles northwest of Rarotonga, even today remote Palmerston has a population of only sixty people. When Elizabeth and Ron were married, they moved there from Rarotonga, where they had met. Ron planned to build a schooner on Palmerston so he could earn a living carrying passengers and freight between the islands. Little Palmerston, only ninety-two acres in size, at that time was (and still is) virtually isolated from the outside world.
“When we got to Palmerston, “Ron says, “they hadn’t seen a ship in four years. It is very hard to realize how primitive the island was then [in 1940]. There was virtually no money, and nothing coming from the outer world. There was practically no steel or iron. There was practically nothing on the island you could convert to make into anything. People had no sails for the canoes. We had to make sails out of palm or pandanus mats. The people lived completely off the land and the lagoon. It’s a pretty limited diet. On those small northern atolls, you’ve got unlimited fish and you’ve got unlimited coconuts, and that’s about all. On some of them you can’t even grow taro or vegetables. We did pretty well, though, and I liked living on Palmerston; I enjoyed it very much. I think probably the happiest years I ever had were there, when we were first there.”
“I always remember one day on Palmerston. We’d been there a little while, and we had a few things. I’d made a good garden, was growing a few vegetables. Liz had a lot of chickens. We had some pigs, and the island had seabirds, which we liked and which we hunted; there was tons of fish and seafood, of course, and I remember one morning getting up at just the first light of dawn and going out with the village men. We went across the lagoon, we caught a boatload of fish, and came back. We were back ashore by about eleven o’clock, I s’pose; it was just getting warm. That was with a sailboat, of course, which we used in the lagoon. And when I came back, I had a bath, and Liz set a tablecloth under the trees down by the beach and we had a roast chicken and some fish and I think we had… probably she’d baked a loaf of bread, and I don’t remember what all the things were—there were a few vegetables. And we sat down and had a good brunch, I s’pose you’d call it at that time of the morning. And when we’d finished eating, we stretched out on the sand under these trees with a nice cool breeze, a beautiful warm day, and I thought, ‘Great, this has gotta be one of the best days in my life.’”
“I worked, always, but no matter at what you worked or what you did in the outside world there was always a certain amount of insecurity over your head. Somebody could sack you. Somebody could fire you. You could lose a job. You never had total security, no matter where you lived in the world. And here I was with everything I could ask for. I couldn’t wish or ask for anything more than that. I could relax on the beach, and I could go on doing it for as far as long as I could see, forever and ever. I got total security for all time. Mind you, it didn’t last too long,” Ron chuckles. “Before twelve months was up, we were strapped with a hurricane, and from being in total security we were down to sheer starvation.”
When Ron returned to Palmerston after surviving the hurricane on Suwarrow, he and Elizabeth were faced with almost equal devastation at home. “The same hurricane we were in on Suwarrow had also hit Palmerston. The sea went right through Palmerston and damaged all the trees. There wasn’t a coconut or a green leaf on a single tree. Liz had a house at that time, a good house, on the beach. And the seas came and washed her house down and knocked everything down, and we lost everything we had. And then of course for a month or two after a hurricane it’s not too bad, because there’s all the coconuts that have fallen on the ground. The old coconuts were still good to eat, but there were no green ones, of course, nothing in the in-between stage. And it would be pretty nearly eighteen months before the trees began to bear coconuts again after a hurricane. As we got on towards the end of the year, it was getting harder and harder to find coconuts. The whole island used to have to go out, all the young people, with axes and spades. We found where the coconut trees had been knocked down, then we’d dig all the way ‘round them, hoping there’s be some coconuts underneath them. We’d find what we could and bring them back to the village.”
“And as I say, towards the end of the year the coconuts were getting so scarce that we couldn’t keep our pigs alive or our chickens alive, and we were down to five coconuts for each family member to eat. Like with us, there was, I think, four or five of us in the family. So we had twenty-five coconuts on which we tried to keep our animals alive and tried to live, but there was nothing else to eat with them except fish. And, of course, by the time Wednesday came, the coconuts were finished and Thursday and Friday you had fish three times a day if you felt like it. Absolutely nothing to go with it. And strangely enough, one of the interesting things, looking back on it afterwards, was that people did keep well. There wasn’t any sickness on the island. You’d think that you would die of scurvy. I’m sure most people in what we call civilization, most people in a literate society, would say, ‘Well, hell; you can’t live like that. What about vitamin deficiency? You’ve gotta have vitamins to live.’”
“Of course we had unlimited protein. There was all the fish you could eat, and a lot more than you could eat. But strangely enough, Liz had been through this in a hurricane in ’36, and when they’d been through that, they knew they could live through it. In ’42, when I was there, I know I was getting really worried as to whether we could live, whether we could stay alive without vitamins—you hear so many stories of sailors at sea dying with scurvy. And I thought we were going to suffer from the same thing. But strangely enough, the people there didn’t worry about it. They didn’t know what vitamins were anyway, and when they didn’t know what they were, well, then there wasn’t any problem about it. It’s as simple as it came down to. And we didn’t get sick. We didn’t get anything. I don’t know whether I even lost a great deal of weight. We had an awful lot of fish, but it’s amazing how much fish you can eat.”
“One interesting thing about that is that we had a pig we were hoping to breed from, hoping to keep alive, and I remember Liz saying, ‘Look, this pig’ll die because pigs can’t eat fish,’ and that sounded extraordinary to me at the time, but it was very true. They’d found that a pig will stay alive as long as he’s got some coconut, but people can stay alive without coconut. When I say stay alive without coconut, what I mean is, when you got down to two days a week without coconut, pigs can’t live that way. You’d feed the old pig some fish, cook up some fish, boil it, and give him all the fish in the world, and he’d have a look at it, and in the end he’d say, ‘Ah, ah, ah—it’ll never work.’ Then the pig got sick, and in the end we had to kill him because we couldn’t keep it alive. The pigs were all the same there, they couldn’t live without something to go with the fish.”
 At that time there might have been about fifty people living on Palmerston.