September 1995, sees East New Britain with its own anniversary to celebrate. It is just a year after the volcanic eruptions that virtually destroyed the capital, Rabaul, and turned the surrounding area into a field of ash. It is remembered as being a frightening but also an exciting time.
Sunday 18th September was a night of continuous earthquakes. At five in the morning there was an exceptionally large quake and billowing clouds began issuing from Mount Tavorvor, one of the several cones that surround the bay of Rabaul. There was a noise like continuous thunder. Ash began raining down and the sky darkened rather than getting light. The inhabitants began running from their houses.
“People didn’t know what to do”, said Theresa Peter, a local resident. ” Children were running one way, parents another. The evacuation vehicles were not in position. People got in whatever car they could. Some cars were commandeered. Fifteen thousand people lived in Rabaul itself, so you can imagine the confusion.”
Despite the confusion, and the fact that a second volcano, Vulcan, began erupting, there was little loss of life. The people of Rabaul helped each other to safety. A few days later the eruptions themselves stopped, although a rain of mud and ash continued to fall for months.
The result was a scene of tremendous devastation. Most of the buildings in Rabaul had collapsed under the weight of ash, which spread over a huge area to the south-east of the city, with the new 800ft high cone of Mt. Vulcan right in the middle. The roads and the airport were obliterated. The telephone system had been one of the first victims of the disaster. There was no water, and no electricity.
“Before the eruptions, Rabaul was the main town in the islands region”, said Governor Francis Koimanrea. “It was a beautiful town with avenues of flowering trees, popular with tourists. Politically stable, it had a good administration and was a hub of commercial activity. Many people had come to live there from outside the area, attracted by the work opportunities and the pleasant surroundings”.
A year later, the huge task of cleaning up Rabaul is not complete.
The functions of the capital have been split between Kotopo, a township further round the bay, and Vunadidir, up in the hills, where government officials have set up camp in buildings that were previously a college for administrators. Land has been purchased by the government and is being made available in small lots for resettlement, though many of the people who had come to live in Rabaul from other provinces have returned to their original homes. Rabaul itself is still a mess of collapsed buildings and heaps of ash.
“We had a lot of assistance from government, from the other provinces and from international donors”, said Francis Koimanrea. “The Gazelle Restoration Authority, which was set up earlier this year, has also been assisted in its funding by outside agencies. We are very grateful for this. However it is not until one has witnessed the utter devastation caused by events such as this that one can appreciate the scale of the work needed to recreate all that makes up a busy, modern provincial capital and much remains to be done”.
As a province, East New Britain relies on both subsistence and plantation agriculture together with forestry, fishing, coastal shipping and commercial activities to provide its economic base. Copra and coconut products are important, as is cocoa. The province is fertile, with well-established plantations and gardens and considerable forest reserves. A relatively long period of contact with a variety of outsiders has resulted in a stable society with functioning social systems such as schools and health services – and a tolerance of tourists. The Gazelle Peninsula is proud of its network of sealed roads. It is because of all this that it is clear that, while the loss of Rabaul has been an unmitigated disaster, East New Britain will overcome this and move on, the events of 1994 taking their place among the others that have marked Rabaul’s colourful past.