Cyclone Winston that hit the Fiji Islands on 20 February was one of the deadliest and most destructive cyclones in the country’s history. John Pickering recounts how the cyclone wreaked its terrifying damage and calls on Australians for urgent help in its aftermath.
In the wake of Cyclone Winston that hit the Fiji Islands on 20 February 2016, a trail of extensive damage and destruction has been left behind. Cyclone Winston goes down in history as being one of the deadliest and most destructive of all cyclones in Fiji’s history. Of the 900,000 population, 62,000 people live in 935 evacuation centers nationwide. 117 Schools have been damaged. Hundreds of families have been left homeless, schools have been damaged and shortage of fresh water, food and shelter remain a growing concern.
The Natovi Catholic Mission in the province of Tailevu is one of the communities reeling from the extensive damage wrought by cyclone Winston. The Presbytery has been severely damaged and today the Parish Priest sleeps in the secretary’s office amidst clutter of boxes, shelves, cabinets, tables and chairs. It is the only space that doesn’t leak from the intermittent showers of rain that falls from time to time since the cyclone blew over. The living quarters are no longer safe and habitable. Electricity is still down. The parish priest, Fr Lario Nacola of the Congregation of the Missions is lost as he sets his eyes on rebuilding the Church, the Sister’s convent, the primary school and the student hostels.
Fr Lario recalls his experiences of the fear and confusion. Cyclone Winston struck them about 3.00pm on Saturday 20 February, 2016. The wind gales blew off the Ovalau Sea and started to increase with great intensity. Fr. Lario and some members of the Church mission were observing the weather developments around a bowl of kava (traditional Fijian drink). The wind began to pound strongly against the walls of the old convent. Rain started to pour in through the windows as the damaging gale force winds shattered the windows. Huge gusts of wind followed the shattering of the windows. Wind forces intensified and in a short time blew off the roof of the old convent. The torrential rains that accompanied the gale force winds of up to 300 knots per hour drenched all who crowded into a small room. They all moved into another room only to experience the power of nature wreaking havoc throughout the entire building.
Outside, loose corrugated iron were flying dangerously like pieces of paper in the air. As the families of teachers all huddled in their different homes, they were not spared the same experience. Mr. Petero Kalou, a primary school teacher Parish Primary School recounted that as he sat in his home with his family, the windows shattered and the roof of their home flew off. His niece, a Class One student at the Parish School froze with fear. He called out to her but in her fear, she stood riveted to the spot where she was standing unable to move. In a swift movement, he gathered her in his arms and with his family behind him, they ran towards the house of another school teacher only to discover that the roof of that house too had been blown away. In the misdst of flying corrugate iron, timber, tree branches and debris they ran to another teacher’s house. He said this is one of his most terrifying experience.
The new primary school block opened only two years ago was not spared either as the strong gale force winds ripped through the building reducing it to rubble. The roof of one of the teacher’s quarters found itself embedded in the branches of a nearby mango tree. The roof of the hostel for the primary school students blew off and now rests in the cassava patch close to the hostel. The destructive winds literally ripped off the side of the senior girls’ hostel.
All around one can hear cries of fear interspersed with litanies of prayer. The forty eight primary school boarders abandoned their hostels and with the help of teachers ran to take shelter in the lower block of the primary school as the Intermediate section of the primary section was reduced to rubble. As they huddled in fear in one classroom, the roof blew off. They ran into another classroom only to experience the same. The boarders in both the Primary School and Secondary School have been sent home but rather sadly and ironically, most will return to homes that no longer exist as the majority of students come from areas that have suffered the most damage. As one teacher recalled, “it was the most frightening experience of our lives as the screams of students merged with the sharp shrill sounds of the damaging gale force winds.”
All around the Mission compound, trees snapped like twigs as building after building succumbed to the ravages of the cyclone Winston. Even the old Church built at the turn of the 20th century had part of its roof blown away. Parts of the Convent where the Sisters of Our Lady of Nazareth live were blown away. Both water and electricity were cut off and remains cut off to this day.
Five miles down the road lies the village of Qelekuro, home to about 25 houses and 400 people. Situated by the sea with a flowing river to one side, this village suffered not only extensive damage to homes, food crops and livestock but had to endure the additional pain of death. Cyclone Winston claimed the life of Sera Tinai, a 41 year old mother of nine children.
Sera Tinai was known to all in the village of Qelekuro as a fun-loving person who took her responsibilities in the village very seriously. She place the needs of her children and her extended family before her own. Her youngest child is only fourteen months old. This child will grow up never knowing her mother except the stories that she will hear of how her mother in the height of the cyclone, took her children to safety and returned to their home to collect a bagful of clothes for each of them. With the bag strung around her arms she tried to make her way back to her family. Her own family home collapsed pinning her to the ground. Weighed down by one of the beams of her own home she lay trapped and unable to move. The nearby river burst its banks and flooded the village. At the same time, there was a tidal wave. As the tidal wave rushed to cover the village with a destructive fury, it combined forces with the waters of the burst riverbank. Meanwhile Sera was still pinned beneath the beams of her own home. Sera Tinai drowned in her own home. She was found later that evening as the villagers mounted a search for her. The spot where she was found is marked by a stick with a bit of blue coloured string attached at its end. Patemosi, Sera’s husband could not help the flow of tears. He said “Our nine children no longer have a mother. My best friend and soul mate is gone. She was so full of life and joy. She was always concerned about the needs of others and whenever we had a function in the village; she was always busy making others laugh with her jokes and stories. She is now gone”. When asked what the most immediate need for his family was, he did not hesitate to say, “We need a house to live in and the sea has claimed all our possession”.
The story of the Natovi Catholic Mission and Qelekuro Village are only two of many in the sea of sadness, tragedy and destruction that now envelopes Fiji. Other parts of Fiji, particularly in the provinces of Ra, Lomaiviti, Tailevu and Cakaudrove have their own stories of tragedy and loss. Government, NGOs and religious groups are making a combined effort to alleviate pain, suffering and loss experienced by our people.
The Archdiocese of Suva has set up her Post Disaster Team (PDT). CARITAS is acknowledged who was instrumental in assisting us effectively respond to people’s needs in the aftermath of natural disasters. Immediately after the cyclone the PDT team and the Archdiocese of Suva’s Commission for Justice and Development conducted a survey around the country. They reported that Cyclone Winston damaged village houses, church buildings, school buildings, hospitals, bridges, electricity power posts and lines, communication networks and plantations.
Cyclone Winston incurred severe damages to Natovi, Wairiki, Navunibitu Catholic Mission Stations. Churches, schools, teachers’ quarters, priest’s houses and convents were heavily damaged. The cyclone practically ripped off the roofs of the Ra Catholic Maternity Hospital, the Nurses’ Quarters and St John’s College on Ovalau. They reported that public roads in parts of the country were closed and communication networks in rural areas and outer Islands disrupted. Many low-lying villages were under water including the towns of Rakiraki and Nadi causing damages to shops and homes.
Many of our people are without water and basic food items. Our peoples’ immediate food needs for rice, flour, tea, sugar, salt, canned foods like corn beef, fish, cooking oil and other basic items like washing and bathing soap, kerosene stoves, tents, tarpaulins, kerosene lights or solar lamps, cooking stoves, pots, cutlery, clothes, beddings and pillows.
Reports show that at present there are about 62,000 people living in evacuation centers. Our Catholic schools and other schools are currently being used as evacuation centers. The Ministry of Education wants to re-open schools in two weeks’ time. Hence we need tarpaulins, tents or temporary shelter for our people to allow schools to re-open. Moreover, our school children need books, pens and bags to replace those damaged by the cyclone.
The Government and NGOs are working together to provide assistance but the magnitude of need for the immediate, short and longer term indicate that the assistance of the international community is also needed.
Archdiocese of Suva Post Disaster Team Plans
• Tarpaulin, temporary sheds.
• Material and equipment to rebuild or build homes (hammers, nails, pinch bars, timber saw, timber, roofing iron.)
• Digging fork, spades, knives, farming equipment, as well as seeds and crop shoots or stems to replant
• Personnel with skills in building cyclone resistant homes/buildings
Long Term Needs
• Cyclone Trauma Response: The Post Disaster Team will set up a Trauma Response Team to attend to peoples traumatized by the cyclone.
• PDT will work closely with the Government and other NGOs to rebuild and build permanent homes, schools, staff quarters, churches, and hospitals and nurses quarters.
Post Disaster Team Needs
• PDT needs funds to provide food, water, tents, tarpaulin, school stationary and furniture, pots and cutlery, temporary toilets and other needs of our peoples.
Pope Francis decreed 2016 as the Year of Mercy. He calls Catholics to reflect constantly of the God of mercy. Mercy is a “re-action love” to human suffering. Pope Francis calls us to rediscover the corporal works of mercy: to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, heal the sick, visit the imprisoned, and bury the dead.
To help facilitate your corporal works of mercy, the Archbishop Peter Chong has opened a “Mercy Account”. Archbishop Peter Chong humbly appeals to your mercy. You can send your monetary donations to the Bank of the South Pacific. Bank of South Pacific, Fiji Account Name: RCA Justice and Development. Account Number: 329943 The Bank Swift Code is BOSB FJFJ. BSB No: 069-011.
May the God of Mercy comfort the victims of Cyclone Winston and Mary Mother of Mercies, pray for us!
While the work of rebuilding and reconstruction continues, the faith of the Fijian people remains stronger than ever as they go about their lives giving thanks to God and still count as blessing their being able to come through this dark experience and now live to tell the tale. Not only has Cyclone Winston caused pain, suffering and destruction but it has left in its wake a total of 42 deaths. Not only have homes been removed from their foundations, but families now have the additional burden of mourning loved ones who were painfully removed from them by Cyclone Winston. The work of rebuilding and reconstructing the different communities in Fiji continues with local and international aid and assistance for which we are immensely grateful.
God Bless Fiji!
(This report courtesy of Jesuit Communications)
Editor's note: You may also help through Catholic Mission.