We have been directly hit by the strongest storm in the Southern Hemisphere. To witness the loss, destruction, and devastation first hand has been an incredibly difficult and emotional experience. When seeing news coverage of natural disasters in a place other than the one I call home, I get choked up. I cry. I donate. I volunteer. While stuck in a hotel lockdown when my family, friends, and loved ones were in wooden and old cement houses on the beach with the largest cyclone Fiji has ever seen baring down on them, I felt terrified, nervous, anxious, nauseous, and tense. Cry, donating, and volunteering during the aftermath will not be enough. It’s amazing how much more real a disaster like this can feel having personal stories rather than statistics. My goal is to create this personal story for you, the reader, so that this natural disaster is more than a headline for you. Now that the sun has come out, and Winston has moved away from Fiji, the challenging and emotional road of rebuilding, and healing will begin.
In the South Pacific, this is an El Nino year, so powerful storms are brewing but also extremely hard to project. Specifically, warm water temperatures caused this storm to be erratic and unpredictable which resulted in extreme unpreparedness and a failure to take the intense weather warnings seriously. For example, two small rickety boats from my village traveled to the mainland and then back to the village the day the cyclone hit. On this day, due to rough seas, all company boats were not servicing the Yasawas in their large ferries, yet locals traveled in their small boats. The story was similar for individuals all over the country, “at the last minute we headed to the evacuation center,” or “I didn’t know we were in the direct path of this powerful cyclone,” or “we didn’t have a sufficient supply of food” etc.
The infrastructure in Fiji, just like any other developing country, is not made to withstand severe natural disasters. On the island of Waya, the place I call home, most structures are made of wood or corrugated tin. In addition, several traditional bures (thatched huts) are scattered throughout the village and a handful of older concrete structures exist. In the days dating before concrete structures, my community would trek up the mountain to burrow down in a natural cave to wait out the storm. This is why when the news came in stating the eye of the storm was headed straight to Waya Island, I panicked. I imagined my family and friends at the mercy of a category 5 cyclone, the strongest Fiji has ever seen. I pictured the cement ruins of the 2012 cyclone (a category 4) and couldn’t dare myself to picture the destruction Winston would have on the community. I knew it would be catastrophic.
During the storm, power blacked out, water stopped running, and cell phone service went out, that is for the world outside our cinder block hotel supplying cold beer, running AC and providing hot showers all by generator (our cyclone experience has privilege stamped all over it, which has added to the challenges and emotions we’ve all been facing). At our hotel in Nadi, a location about 50 km south of the eye, we witnessed full beer bottles flying off counters, AC units and roofing ripped off buildings, trees crashing down, and doors swinging off their hinges. It was a surreal experience and thoughts of the communities directly in the heat of the storm caused a numbing feeling.
The storm had passed by early Sunday morning, but the country declared and enforced a national lock down. Nobody, aside from emergency personnel, was allowed on the streets. After three agonizing days of being trapped in the hotel and calling, texting, emailing, and facebook messaging my community, I finally heard the line on the other end ring. I braced myself for the worst eagerly waiting to hear from someone, anyone, in my community. I heard good and bad news. Firstly, nobody was injured, which is all that really matters. On the negative side multiple school buildings, houses, and other structures were washed away or flattened. So, on Waya, we can focus on structural rebuilding which cannot be said for all communities who are mourning the loss of loved ones. Knowing my community can and will move beyond this destruction and understanding the way locals work together is uplifting, yet in a remote island community with no income and a small population, this rebuilding is going to be extremely challenging. Just to reiterate, my island is going to struggle seeking required resources and aid due to its’ peripheral status. It is important to note that so far, from a national stand point, foreign and domestic aid have been responsive to this natural disaster and are working to regain communication with cut off parts of the country, are boating and helicoptering supplies into remote locations, and are rebuilding crucial infrastructure; however, our rebuilding, healing and hardships are going to long outlive news coverage, and foreign and domestic aid missions.
Yesterday, as I made my escape from our cinder block bubble full of AC and hot showers alongside Peace Corps staff and two other volunteers, I was forced to digest this reality. At the time of the disaster, we were concerned about the lives of ourselves and our loved ones, and our possessions crossed our minds-this most definitely holds more truth for Americans than our Fijian friends. Where is my computer? Is my house withstanding the 200 mile an hour winds? were some of thoughts running through our minds. In the next few days, we were focused on contacting loved ones, flood warnings, assessing damage, and access food and clean water. As Tropical Cyclone Winston news has passed in many parts of the world, in Fiji, we are starting to regain contact to certain islands, the death rate is steadily increasing, and the reality of long term destruction is being uncovered. For example, the sugar cane and sugar cane factories have been destroyed. The June harvest which would have brought in a significant portion of the countries income has been decimated. As farming and living off the land is the Fijian way of life, especially in my outer island community, the destruction of crops is going to particularly devastating. My village friends have informed me that plantations are wiped out and without any income rather than going to the supermarket, we go to the plantation. Not that a supermarket, corner shop or store is even accessible on my island- even getting oil, flour and sugar requires a trip to the mainland. Even the cassava, a dietary staple, has been ripped from the ground. Food security is a serious issue. In addition, Fiji Tourism, an economic backbone, will be hindered due to resort damage. Securing reservations and regaining reputations will be a process.
Typically after a natural disaster, disease outbreaks occur. In fact, Koro Island has already declared a quarantine due to disease outbreaks. Zika and dengue fever are going to be an issue here as mosquito breeding grounds have increased. Typhoid is another potential concern.
So what’s next? Well, again our privilege and the reality that even as Peace Corps Volunteers we are not living at the local level is slapped in our face. The majority of us have not been cleared to go back to site. A clearance requires that a Peace Corps staff member visits our house and assess the damage, water quality and our work (is our school still standing?). In some cases, there is no house to visit. These volunteers are in Suva while trying to work out possible options such as a homestay, a site change or rebuilding a house. We are all still in our cinder block hotel for the weekend and will wait until Monday for further clearances. I am hoping that I will be escorted back to site on Tuesday and depending on the condition of my house, school, solar etc. it may be a day visit allowing me to restock in mainland.
I am hoping and praying that I truly do get to return to my village on Tuesday. It is really hard to be here knowing there is plenty to do in my community. I am anxious to be there to help my community. It’s incredibly difficult to imagine what the remainder of my service will look like without seeing the damage first hand; however, I know it will be a lot of rebuilding. Although it sprung from an unbelievably devastating event, I am looking forward to being a part of the healing process with my family and friends in Yalobi, a community that holds a special place in my heart. It is a challenging and emotional time for Fiji, but there is no doubt in my mind that with the strength of local community, positive attitude, and the power of laughter everything will eventually be okay. Fiji is in fact stronger than Winston.
If you are able and willing to donate, every bit helps. The recovery in a developing country requires outside support. Please consider donating to Friends of Fiji or Save the Children. Friends of Fiji is an organization established by returned Peace Corps Volunteers who served 2 years in Fiji. They are planning to delegate their funds to local counterparts, and I feel they are credible due to their high level of understanding of Fiji as a whole. In speaking with the organization’s president, it is clear they intend to focus their efforts on remote villages as well as more densely populated areas. This donation is tax deductible. Save the Children is a trusted and active group in Fiji and has established a special fund for the cyclone relief. Below are the links that will directly benefit Fiji.
Vinaka (or Vina du as we say in the Yasawas)!
Friends of Fiji: https://friendsoffiji.nationbuilder.com/cyclone_winston
Save the Children: http://www.savethechildren.org/…/…/b.9366017/k.B743/Fiji.htm