ACT News

Canberra teenager Zoe Marshall unaccounted for in Vanuatu

Canberra's Alison Abernethy imagines her teenage daughter is helping villagers on Vanuatu's Pentecost Island clear the damage left by Cyclone Pam - that's what she chooses to believe. 

Her 18-year-old daughter, Zoe Marshall, is among 19 volunteer teachers unaccounted for on the remote northern island after the category 5 cyclone swept through the region on March 13, devestating much of the country.

Zoe Marshall with her mother Alison Abernethy, brother Angus and father Rob Marshall in December.
Zoe Marshall with her mother Alison Abernethy, brother Angus and father Rob Marshall in December. 

Ms Abernethy last heard from her daughter on Thursday morning via text message as the Watson teenager bunkered down in anticipation of the storm. 

"Sorry for early text but don't know when phone will work," Zoe's last text read.

Zoe Marshall was in Vanuatu when cyclone Pam devastated the region.
Zoe Marshall was in Vanuatu when cyclone Pam devastated the region. 

"We've got a cat 5 warning, should hit us tonight. Should be all good. I love you more than most things."

Ms Abernethy, her husband, Rob Marshall and Zoe's brother, Angus, 16, heard from Zoe nearly every day prior to the storm.

Ms Abernethy said the silence had been "dreadful, really, really horrible".

She said the island had intermittent reception and no internet connection prior to the storm and was now completely cut off from the outside world. 

Texts from Zoe to her mother ended on Thursday night, ahead of the cyclone.
Texts from Zoe to her mother ended on Thursday night, ahead of the cyclone. Photo: Supplied

"[Zoe] had been advised the storm had been upgraded to a category 5 and that she did not expect her phone to work, she didn't know when her phone would work again," Ms Abernethy said.

"We'd been texting back and forward during the week. She was telling me they were prepared for the cyclone and had reinforced the rooves and packed away all the school materials and prepared food and water - she was pretty relaxed, she was telling me about how it was all good.

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"Lattitude, the organisation she was volunteeering with, they'd gone to visit her and had seen that the village was well prepared."

The family have been liasing with Lattitude, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Smart Traveller but have received very limited information. 

 On Wednesday, Ms Abernethy was assigned a department case worker who will update her daily. 

"It's extremely limited infomation because they haven't got anyone on the ground in Pentecost and there's absolutely no communication island wide," Ms Abernethy said.

"DFAT rang me today to tell me I've been assigned a case worker...Hopefully, they'll tell me some good news soon."

An Australian Air Force aerial reconnaissance had also given the family hope. 

"The damage to the area wasn't as bad as say Port Vila or the southern provinces," Ms Abernethy said.

"That gave us a lot of hope, but what that means is the relief effort has been focused on those other areas. There really isn't any information on Pentecost because nobody's going there."

But this could change  after a medical boat  left for the remote island on Tuesday night.

"They've got the details of Zoe and the other volunteers," Ms Abernethy said.

"We're hoping they might get word to them - they've got a satelite phone."

Ms Abernethy said she had heard World Vision was trying to send a plane to the island but could not confirm this with DFAT.

Zoe, who graduated from Dickson College last year and has deffered an engineering place at the University of New South Wales, left for Vanuatu on February 9 for the five-month program, teaching school children in grades 1, 2, 5 and 6.

"She's been interested in helping people and doing good things since she was a little kid," Ms Abernethy said.

"She wanted to do something with her gap year that made a difference. We're really proud of her."

Ms  Abernethy said her daughter seemed to be in good spirits, even as news of the cyclone approached. 

"She was making a joke about the fact that a rat had eaten her sandal and that she was going to get that rat when the storm had passed," she said.

"We're really hoping the village wasn't hit too badly and Zoe is just getting on, helping the villagers tidy up and getting the kids back to school; that's what we're choosing to believe."

A department spokesman said consular staff in Vanuatu were making every effort to contact and assist Australians in the country.

"Aerial surveillance has been undertaken to locate Australians, however communications are out and airstrips are damaged on many islands, so contact and travel to these areas is very difficult," he said.

"Consular staff in Australia are in contact with families who have concerns for Australians in Vanuatu."