Around 1900, many of the inhabitants of Hikueru—an egg-shaped atoll ringing a lagoon—made a living diving for black pearl and black pearl shell. The population of 1,000 to 2,000 people included nearly 500 Latter-day Saints and several hundred members of the RLDS Church. Meetings of both faiths were occasionally punctuated by animosity as missionaries from both churches contended for converts.
On January 14, 1903, a cyclone swept through the Tuamotu Archipelago, causing widespread destruction. By early afternoon, much of Hikueru was flooded. During the night, many of the islanders climbed to safety in nearby trees, securing themselves by tying blankets and coats to the trunks. Pinga a Tekehu, an RLDS member, and his family fled their home to higher ground, where they built a small shelter of coconut leaves. As the water rose, the Tekehu family’s small shelter was overtaken by the waves. Despite his best efforts, Tekehu lost six of his children to the sea.
Heber Sheffield, a Latter-day Saint missionary, and his companion, James Allen, watched “mothers with their infants trying to shelter them from the wind, rain, and raging sea; fathers with their children tugging through the briny waves, as they rolled over the land.” Each time the surf went out, Sheffield and Allen assisted others to climb to safety. Eventually, at Allen’s encouragement, Sheffield “rebuked the storm in the name of the Lord, and prayed to God that it might cease.” Within the hour, the storm passed.
When the waters receded, 378 people had died and nearly every building and boat on the island was damaged or destroyed. The survivors were in a dire situation. The cisterns, the only source of fresh water on the island, were flooded with seawater. Food was scavenged from the wreckage for several days until a small boat, the Teiti, brought taro, bananas, sweet potatoes, yams, and melons.
Members of the competing faiths set aside their differences to save lives. They dived for scraps and recovered what metal they could find from the lagoon so that RLDS missionary J. W. Gilbert, with help from Sheffield and Allen, could construct two condensers to distill fresh water, using pieces of an iron bed frame for piping. Their ingenuity allowed them to produce enough fresh water to give each survivor a pint a day until, on the seventh day, it rained. The next day, the steamship Excelsior arrived to provide relief to the starving survivors.