Throughout the 2021 United Nations climate change conference, the Guardian will be publishing the stories of the people whose lives have been upended – sometimes devastated – by the climate breakdown.
Vanessa Nieuwenhuizen, Samoa
It was the day before we were supposed to fly to Australia for a family reunion and Christmas in 2012, so it was a very exciting day to start off with. There was a cyclone due to hit Samoa. It started to rain really heavily and by the afternoon we started seeing water rising just around the house.
At around 4.30, I heard my husband screaming outside and I knew something was very wrong. By the time I made it outside, there was a massive gush of water coming towards our house, like an inland tsunami.
My husband yelled to grab the kids. My baby was sitting on the toilet. I grabbed him by the arm. The water was rising so quickly that by the time we made it out of the house, the water was up to our hips. We were already struggling.
We have four children and so my husband and I had one child on each arm as we waded through the water. There was one point where my husband and I looked at each other and in my anxious mind I thought: please, please, Heavenly Father, don’t let us have to make a decision to let one of our children go.
We all made it through, thank goodness. But the thought of having to let go of one of our children, I wouldn’t wish it upon any parent.
We made it into the workshop, and climbed the stairs towards the little storeroom. Our entire house was gone, our cars had been washed away, big machines in our workshop that had been bolted to the ground had washed away – that’s how strong the water was.
We stayed up in the storeroom for several hours, wrapped in old, dirty curtains to keep ourselves warm. I remember thinking: if we make it out alive, how and where are we going to start all over again?
We had an amazing life in Samoa but after we lost everything in that flash flood, we decided to move to Australia. Australia has been kind to us, but as much as we say this is home, Samoa will always be home. I miss Samoa. Every occasion, my thoughts turn to home, and I still cry.