New missionaries around the world put their trust in God, stuff their suitcases with enough clothing for two years and kiss their mothers goodbye, believing that they will be safely kept until the clothes wear out and they return home. So did Elder Denny Jensen before he left his home in Raymond, Alberta and landed on Tanna--a remote island of Vanuatu located in the South Pacific. Vanuatu made it into the spotlight and history books on March 13, 2015 thanks to a category 5 storm known as Cyclone Pam. With winds of up to 270 kilometers an hour, Pam registered as the worst storm in the history of the island nation, killing 24. Elder Jensen is an eyewitness—he was there.
Elder Jensen’s mother, Kelly, received news of the cyclone on the same day she received the itinerary of her son’s return to Canada at the completion of his mission in June. The official press release from the Church stated that all communication on the island was knocked out after Cyclone Pam struck the islands and the condition of the missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was unknown. However, the condition of Elder Jensen and ten other missionaries on Tanna was known to God.
“We got word from Mission President Larry Brewer on Sunday March 8 that a small cyclone was gaining strength in the area and that we should prepare for the ‘possibility’ that it would hit Vanuatu. The chance of it affecting us was small. The warnings gradually escalated through the week until Thursday, when they said we were in the path of the storm and they asked us to try to come to town, if possible, in next day or two. Worried that heavy rain would swell the rivers and make them impassable, we left all our belongings and went right then. We got to town where we stayed with the other missionaries until Friday when we were informed that the cyclone would pass directly over our island and all missionaries were to gather in a “safe cement structure” wherever possible. We went to the bank and withdrew our money and headed for the big cement high school in the town. With the permission of the principal, we occupied some dorm rooms specially designated for us. Though we felt safe, we worried about the members back in our outlying village. Our branch of 100 faithful members had no cement structures to protect them and they lived on the top of a mountain where the storm would hit hardest. We weren’t sure if any of the Church buildings would survive because they are wood structures built on stilts. By 4 o’clock all 11 missionaries had gathered in the school. It was Friday, the 13th.
“The actual cyclone hit us at 5 a.m. Saturday morning. From our windows, we saw debris and branches flying all over the place—sheets of tin, stuff like that. We sat on the floor and read our scriptures or sang hymns. It was cool how one person would just start singing and then we all joined in. The rain came in vertically now. We could see and hear stuff flying around outside. The cyclone beat against the island until 1:30 p.m. Saturday the 14th. Then it was over.
“Outside, the damage was so great, I didn’t recognize anything. Every building was roofless, with overturned trees and metal scattered all around, even stuck in trees. There was nothing unscathed. Everyone walked around in a state of shock. The island was still without power.
“By request of the police chief who also happened to be the branch president, we held a devotional for everyone in the school every morning and evening. There weren’t many members present; however everyone appreciated a song, prayer and spiritual thought. We’d brought all the food we could carry and had enough to survive for a week, but only 20 plastic bottles of water, enough for only a few days. The Branch President asked people to find and bring in any food not destroyed in their gardens. We drank the liquid from coconuts to keep hydrated, but it doesn’t quench your thirst,” Elder Jensen says.
By Tuesday, the missionaries managed a short communication with the mission office who said a plane would evacuate them at 10 a.m. the following day. “We immediately headed back to our village to get our belongings. A truck drove us three hours to where we hiked an hour to our house next to the Church. Incredibly, we found the buildings still standing. No members had died. I was astonished as people live in bamboo huts with very little protection. Almost 200 villagers had gathered inside our 50' x 20' wooden church to wait out the storm. The building received no damage. Our house next door had a broken window and a solar panel came off, but these were the only buildings left standing in the whole area,” Elder Jensen stated. “We grabbed our things, shook hands with the branch president and started running back to the truck. We got back to the school at 11 p.m.”