Rachel Reeves was given seven months to report and write a book about a small South Pacific island nearly wiped out by a cyclone 17 years ago. She produced a masterpiece
by Mark McDermott
Last year, a young woman from a small island in the South Pacific was going about her daily business when she ran across an item on social media that sent her mind flying back to events that had occurred 17 years earlier that still didn’t quite seem real.
Benina Simiona was living in Auckland, New Zealand, but she was from a tiny coral atoll called Manihiki, among the outermost of the Cook Islands, a nation that itself is a far flung village consisting of 15,000 people living on 15 islands spread across 690,000 square miles of ocean expanse. Benina was from a village of a few hundred people called Tauhunu, which on the dark night of November 1, 1997, was swept out to sea by a series of 30 foot waves — or, as locals invariably recall, “waves as tall as the coconut trees.”
Many terrible and extraordinary things happened that night. Children were pulled from parents’ arms, never to be seen again; dozens of villagers flew hundreds of yards out into Manihiki’s normally placid lagoon, suddenly a tumult of destruction; one elder was last seen perched atop a detached roofing tin, as if surfing, riding a wave to oblivion.
A small, beautiful world had been turned upside down. Hundreds of small heroic acts, later documented, would testify to the stout island heart of the Manihiki people, who that night experienced unfathomable tragedies and miracles side by side, as the waves generated by what would be named Cyclone Martin — or Mātini , in Maori — changed their lives forever.
But perhaps nothing quite so unreal — and outright fantastical — occurred as what Benina lived through.
When the first wave hit the island, eight-year-old Benina was at her family’s home, where she and others had run outside to a raised platform in hopes of reaching safety. One moment she was looking after two elderly aunties; the next moment, she found herself surfacing, out in the middle of the lagoon. Like most island girls, she was a strong swimmer and she managed to make her way to her neighbors, Willie and Ana Katoa, who’d found a small boat amid the rush of water and wreckage and clambered aboard. But then a second wave hit, and the boat was thrown over the reef into the open sea.
All night long, Ana and Willie clung to the the capsized boat; Benina was nowhere in sight. They thought she’d perished. But early the next morning, when another neighbor, Benina’s uncle John Solomona William, spotted the boat and paddled the log he was clinging to towards it, the three yelled greetings.
Benina had been underneath the boat, in total darkness, the entire night. The wave had plunged her underwater and she had surfaced inside the cavity of the overturned boat, not realizing anyone was atop it. When she finally heard voices, Benina screamed out, and the two men were able to turn the boat right side up and rescue her. The four neighbors spent the next three days on the boat, which Willie, a fisherman, steered across 30 miles of open sea to the neighboring island of Rakahanga. Using a sleeping bag and sticks pulled from ocean debris, he’d jury-rigged a sail and navigated by the stars and the current, as Pacific Islanders have been doing longer and more skillfully than any other people on Earth. When finally they reached land, first crawling and then walking onto Rakahanga after 72 hours without food or water, some islanders thought the four survivors were ghosts.
Benina, now 26, had rarely told anyone of her experience. She was now a mother of three, working in a supermarket, part of the Cook Islander expat community in New Zealand. But on this day last spring, she was perusing Facebook and saw a post. It was from a young writer named Rachel Reeves — who, it turned out, was the exact age as Benina — and had been shared on Facebook by a cousin of hers who was also living abroad.
“Kia orana kotou,” Reeves wrote. “I’m researching and writing a book about Cyclone Martin and its tragic aftermath, with the gracious support of the Cyclone Martin Charitable Trust and a number of inspiring Manihiki people. If you remember Martin or have friends or relatives who do, please don’t hesitate to send me a private message….”
“A lot of people have told me, ‘You should write a book about your story.’ But I always said, ‘Nah,’,” Benina later told Reeves. “Then I saw this on Facebook, and I thought, ‘It is time.'”
She was not alone in feeling the time had come. The story of Cyclone Martin and Manihiki had never been fully told, but those who had experienced it or knew about it could never forget. Very little generally has been written about the Cook Islands, partly because it is such a small, remote place, and partly because the culture itself is largely transmitted through oral history, as has been the case for centuries.
But a small group of people — those who made up the Cyclone Martin Charitable Trust — had borne witness to the destruction. The waves had only begun the process. As one survivor later told Reeves, the emergency response, which included mass relocation, had done more damage to Manihiki than Mātini itself.
The need to document mistakes that had been made in the hope that history of this sort would never repeat, as well as to celebrate the resilience and beauty of a proud people and their way of life, compelled the Trust to commission a book. Among those who brought this vision to fruition nearly two decades after the cyclone were Ana Katoa, who survived three nights at sea but lost one of her daughters in the cyclone; Kora Kora, a cyclone survivor; Niki Rattle, a Manihiki woman who is now Speaker of the House in the Cook Islands Parliament; and John Woods, the publisher of the Cook Islands News.
And Reeves, who is part Cook Islander but grew up in Redondo Beach and turned out to be the right person to tell the story. A journalist who from a young age bent herself toward the task of becoming a writer, she was also rare — her Cook Islands heritage, and experience spending summers on the islands as a kid and teenager, and later three years as a reporter for the Cook Islands News, made her someone to whom survivors could comfortably speak. Bloodlines mean everything in the tight-knit communities of the Cook Islands. Rachel’s grandmother, Pauline Napa, is still running Rarotonga’s first-ever motel. Her great-grandmother, Upokoina Po’ona, was a chief on the island of Aitu and though she died at age 96 when Rachel was a young child, she bestowed the full name upon her granddaughter that is used as the book’s byline, Rachel Michele Teana Reeves.
Mātini: The story of Cyclone Martin will be released later this month. Early copies have been reviewed by Manihiki elders, contributing finally to some feeling of completion for those who endured the waves and their aftermath.
“You have achieved an enormous task to encapsulate the tragedy of Cyclone Martin in print that will inform generations to come,” wrote Dr. Robert Woonton, who was Manihiki’s member of Parliament when Mātini hit, in correspondence with Reeves.
“As I am reading the skies are doing my crying,” wrote JeanMarie Williams, a survivor who still lives on Manihiki. “The heavens opened up…you have made history, love, and it is alive…the spirits of Manuhiki-taku-vaka [Manihiki Our Canoe] are crying with joy as I connect the story with them…a masterpiece.”
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Reeves studied Global and International Studies with an emphasis on the Pacific at the University of California Santa Barbara and cut her teeth as a journalist working on Rarotonga, the country’s main island, covering everything from Hillary Clinton’s visit for the Pacific Islands Leaders’ Forum to the local courts.
“Cook Islands News puts every case in the paper,” she said, laughing. “People would get so pissed at me. In a small community, that’s probably one of the worst jobs you can have.”
Reeves returned to the U.S. in 2012 following her three year stint with Cook Islands News and covered her hometown, Redondo, for Easy Reader. In addition to beat coverage, she published a series, “The Aerospace Chronicles,” regarding the history of the South Bay’s aerospace industry, a culture-shaping, six decade span that had never been so definitively examined by a local journalist.
Her reportage even won over her father and grandfather, both finance people who had questioned why anyone would go into the paltry-paying field of journalism until they saw how deep the field of inquiry could be for a reporter with broad ambitions.
“People say you’re not supposed to want to go into journalism today,” she said. “But I’ve never worried about print dying. It’s my job to meet people and learn about them. That is such a privilege.”
In late 2013, she returned briefly to the South Pacific for a magazine assignment and was approached by Woods and members of the Trust about the Mātini book project. Suddenly, back in the U.S. in January 2014, an email arrived at her desk with a book proposal and contract attached. By February she was back in the Cook Islands.
Reeves had taken on a nearly impossible task. She had seven months to document the experiences of as many survivors as she could find — both for the book and on video — as well as examine the performance of more than a dozen government and international agencies who’d had a role in Cyclone Martin.
These ranged from disaster management offices to police (both the disaster director and police commissioner were out of the country on junkets, despite the fact it was the beginning of cyclone season) to hurricane forecasting agencies in several countries. Among the discrepancies her reporting turned up was that the prime minister was mysteriously incommunicado throughout the weekend the cyclone struck, and that the position responsible for disaster management in the absence of the office’s director no longer existed. The prime minister’s entire office had been subjected to budget cuts, as had the government-owned radio station, which might have been able to warn Manihiki had it not been privatized. One of the prime minister’s staff recalled asking a colleague about how to handle the approaching storm. “Don’t worry about it, love,” she told him. “People know what to do.”
Beyond such reporting, Reeves also had to learn the science of hurricanes, the workings of pearl farms, the impact and implications of climate change on the South Pacific, Manihiki mythology, the protocol of the New Zealand Air Force’s search and rescue operations, and the recent economic and political history of the Cook Islands.
But most importantly, she had to find the hundreds of human stories, and then weave them into a tapestry while still keeping narrative structure. She had to hunt for survivors. She went on radio stations, television, gave talks to various associations and interviews to news organizations. All tolled she did almost 150 interviews, some lasting entire days, almost all emotionally charged (including one eight hour interview without so much as a food break). One old man, tears streaming down his face, recalled the feeling of knowing his son was somewhere adrift at sea and not being able to get anyone to search. There was a delay in the start of search and rescue operations due to the utter inaction of the Cook Islands government.
Reeves spent two weeks in Auckland, New Zealand, and six weeks on Manihiki. The latter experience deeply moved her. She stayed in a little bungalow at the lagoon’s edge and came to understand the geography and deeply pacific nature of the remote island and its people.
“People would bring me dinner. They were so lovely. They’d bring me husked coconuts all day long. ‘I hear you are the girl who just visited our daugher in Auckland. I just wanted to bring you something.’ They’d invite me to lunch — well, not out to lunch, but over for fish.”
She then spent five months of 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. workdays holed up writing, reading and thinking in a small shack on Rarotonga. She also began carrying the burden — she was the one tasked with telling Manihiki’s tale and of the people who’d let her briefly into their innermost lives to talk about the worst thing that had ever befallen them.
“They would tell me, ‘You are part of our story now’,” she recalled. “‘This is your story just as much as ours, because you are becoming part of it.’ I still don’t claim that, because I didn’t live it. But I thought a lot about it. It’s all I thought about, the only thing — I could not think about a single other thing than these people and what happened and how I was going to structure this story. Just laying awake at night with a notepad.”
Finally, Reeves had to take all these strands and write a coherent, accurate story that would both honor the living and the dead while holding a lackadaisical government, rarely questioned in any serious way, accountable for mistakes that almost certainly cost lives. The toll of the dead was 19, which doesn’t seem like a lot until one considers the village of Tauhunu lost more than 5 percent of its population and in the aftermath, through ill-considered relocations that never gave people a way to get back home, more than half the population. The island now is home to about 250 people, down from the 670 who lived there before Nov. 1, 1997.
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Fellow journalists have been astounded by the the feat of reporting Reeves has accomplished with Mātini.
“An important book that does what no government since 1997 has done – hold an investigation into deaths that occurred during Cyclone Martin that year,” wrote Jason Brown, who covered Cyclone Martin for the Cook Islands Press. “Mātini names, blames and shames, yes, but also gains an understanding of what could have been done differently … And what can be done, still, to prevent this happening again, on such a tragic scale.”
Ron Arias, a National Book Award-nominated, Hermosa Beach-based novelist and journalist who spent three decades covering wars and natural disasters for People magazine, served as a mentor as Reeves embarked on her journey.
“When her book deal came through, I never doubted she could single-handedly pull off such a demanding, geographically sprawling assignment,” Arias said. “However, I also knew the gathering of all the facts and interviews would be daunting. And to string everything together in one strong, flowing, book-length narrative account of such tragedy and devastation — that would be the next major challenge. After all, a long, satisfying tale is more than a stream of newspaper-like stories, no matter how riveting they are individually.
“Yet Rachel set to work with a vision. Armed with the collected facts, details, impressions and survivor accounts, she wrote and rewrote steadily for weeks and months. I could tell from reading an early draft that she had a deeply compassionate feel for her material. Now that the book is complete and between covers, I see this is why her writing connects with readers emotionally. It’s why the work is such a powerful story of human survival amid natural disaster.”
The book will be officially released July 1, preceded by a blessing ceremony June 30 on Rarotonga at which Manihiki elders will send the book out into the world.
“That’s good to get everybody’s story,” said Papapia Tareka, a shopkeeper on Manihiki and the oldest resident in Tauhunu village. “I was wishing that one day somebody will come up and tell this story of Martin.”
For more information, or to order Mātini , visit www.matinibook.com.