On the 20th February 2016, a Category 5 storm, named Tropical Cyclone Winston with 340 km/hr wind gusts made landfall in the Fiji Group of islands. Winston is the most powerful tropical storm ever to hit the Fiji Group and left a massive trail of destruction, claiming 43 lives, damaging 18,154 houses, and producing US$120 million worth of damages on the agriculture sector, US$54 million in the education sector and directly affecting one third of Fiji’s population.
TC Winston made landfall on Koro Island where my maternal grandmother hails from. My brother and I travelled to Koro Island one week after TC Winston. We were traveling across the Fiji Group together with the Honorable Prime Minister´s trip on his first trip to Koro Island to bring relief supplies to affected communities and hear first-hand from them their experience and their plans for rebuilding their community. We also brought relief supplies for my kinsmen in Nasau, Naqaidamu, Namacu and Sinuvaca villages. This was an experience like no other. In the aftermath, we saw the island in a state comparable to the impact made by an “atomic bomb”. Almost all things living and man-made were brutally twisted and shredded, blown and washed away. The National Disaster Management Office (NDMO) damage assessment identified that 788 houses were completely destroyed and 234 were partly damaged at least on the island of Koro.
When we got to my grandmothers village, Nasau, we happily greeted our kinsmen and we were invited for lunch which they gladly shared with us made from pawpaw fruits they picked up lying around the village after TC Winston passed. I was quickly taken by the fact that they were utilizing their local knowledge to sustain them when food sources are scarce.
For everyone in that evacuation center billeting 19 households, everything that used to be theirs is no longer there. Their family homes, their valuable belongings, their farms and their Church, their shops and even their bag of clothes are all gone. I could barely imagine how my fellow kinsman were feeling after surviving from the impact of TC Winston. I spoke to a few elderly ladies who were accommodated with my kinsmen in the same evacuation center.
A lady married to a cousin of mine shared her story on how they managed to survive that day:
“....Our house was blown away and we ran to seek shelter underneath my brothe- in-law house. Just when we were trying to get comfortable, I heard my son shout out loud “Water is coming!!...We quickly removed ourselves from underneath the floor and we could see a body of water moving quickly through the village. Shortly after, we could see supplies from our canteen shop floating on water....As I was trying to pick some stuff my husband yelled at me to lie down on the ground and just as I did a roofing iron flew over my head. My husband told me to forget about everything and first move to safety to save our lives. As we move to higher ground we were faced with strong winds and painfully heavy raindrops......Most of us elderlies were making our way towards the Church Minister´s Compound up on the hill and our efforts to get to safety were further delayed as the path to the house was blocked by fallen trees and debris ....When we got to Church Minister´s house, half of the roof of the house was blown away. The only shelter we could find was in the bedrooms. On that evening and till daylight, almost half of the villagers including women, children, babies and elderlies took shelter in what was left of the three bedroom house..............Most of the men did not sleep that night and were in their wet clothes as they tried to keep us women and the children comfortable in whatever was left of the Church Minister’s house......”
The Minister's wife, who was welcoming villagers to take shelter in whatever was left of her home also shared her story with us:
“.......we were curled up in our bedroom when the roof was taken off at the living room and kitchen. In the height of TC Winston, women, men and children were turning up at home to take shelter. I emptied all our suitcases to give villagers to change their clothes to something dry. When I ran out of dry clothes, I gave our youths our curtains to keep them dry in the evening until the next day......”
The Minister's wife also shared her story leading up to that day.....
“.....I was doing our laundry earlier in the week and I was planning to wash the Minister´s White Coat. Then I realized I had no detergent (Janola) to use on the white coat so I took it back to the room. After I cleared all our dried clothes that night, the only dry clothes left hanging in our room was the Minister’s white coat....then it occurred to me that the only part of the house that was spared were the rooms....I have never gone through this type of ordeal in my life but this experience has taught me a great deal about how GOD reciprocate our FAITH in him through his LOVE........”
Another elderly woman also shared how they felt helpless and to an extent clueless on what to do to bury dead members of their community. She said ....”We don’t even know whether to feel sad or grief when we found out the lives of our fellow community members were taken by the impact of TC Winston. We felt like we were dead as well, as we have no hope when everything we had is gone except our ability to breathe.....". She went to say......” one of the victims was wrapped in tarpaulin when buried as we couldn’t find a decent mat to wrap him with to at least provide him with some sense of dignity as a fellow kinsman”.
These are the memories they had to live through and will remain with them until the end of their lifetimes. My only hope is that my kinsmen are not stuck in these memories but are capable of moving forward each day to discover how to best manage this experience to improve their lives, as they gather the pieces of what is left behind by TC Winston.