Vanuatu asks the world: please send books!

When a disaster strikes, books can be a critical part of emergency relief.

Nick Perry/AP
Young men on Tanna Island, Vanuatu, take apart a hut destroyed by Cyclone Pam.

Books, it turns out, may play a surprisingly important role in emergency relief efforts.

When a catastrophic earthquake hit Haiti in 2010, the Haitian people, in addition to food, clothing, and shelter, asked for books.

And now, after Tropical Cyclone Pam devastated the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, its residents are also asking for aid - and books.

Tropical Cyclone Pam struck Vanuatu on March 13, hammering the 83 small islands that make up the South Pacific archipelago. It has been called the worst storm to ever hit the Pacific region, ultimately affecting almost half the population of 250,000.

In addition to homes, hospitals, and stores, the cyclone destroyed schools, including the main school in Vanuatu’s capital, Port Vila, that's roof was blown off in the storm. There, thousands of books have been damaged beyond repair and the school in desperate need of books to replace the ones lost.

The school's headmaster, Paul Alexander Hetyey, wants to reopen the school almost immediately, and has been collecting books and preparing the school.

The school's teachers, librarians, and volunteers were able to salvage some books, which have been meticulously collected from the debris and laid out in the sun to dry, as Save The Children NZ depicted in its tweet.

But they need more, and are sending an appeal for books to the world.

“There are a lot of book warehouses out there,” Hetyey told Reuters. “Well, we need good books, good encyclopedias, reference books, all subjects, reading books from kindy [kindergarten] right up to year 13 young adult books.”

It's a sentiment not unlike those expressed by other countries after natural disaster strikes – in addition to food, clothing, shelter, and emergency supplies, many have expressed a desire for books.

According to recent literary-humanitarian campaign circling the globe, “In humanitarian emergencies, reading and writing are essential to healing and reconstruction.”

The Urgency of Reading petition, argues that books should be a critical part of emergency relief efforts after disasters like Hurricane Katrina, the Haitian earthquake, the Indian Ocean tsunami – or the Vanuatu cyclone.

“While there is no question that organizations and governments must devote the majority of their efforts to promoting the physical wellbeing of disaster victims, more attention should be given to nourishing the mind as a second measure to help victims cope with catastrophe and move forward,” the petition states.

In fact, the first email Libraries Without Borders received after the Haitian earthquake was a request for books to reopen a destroyed library.

The importance of food, emergency supplies, and shelter, after a natural disaster, cannot be underestimated. But perhaps the importance of books, which provide comfort, escape, connection, and normalcy after a crisis, can.

Groups involved in collecting books for Vanuatu include Kiwanis International who detail their initiative here. Groups working to provide broader aid include Oxfam, the New Zealand Red Cross, and UNICEF.

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