When disaster strikes

Cyclone Winston: six months on

It's been six months since the worst cyclone in Fiji's history. Our Humanitarian Advisor, Evan Davies reports on how disaster preparedness can save lives when disaster strikes.

Six months ago in the late afternoon of the 19th of February Jim received a call from Peni Seru warning him that Severe Tropical Cyclone Winston would hit the coast near his village late the following day. Jim is the headman of Nayavutoka, a small coastal village in Fiji, and Peni Seru a program manager from the Fijian NGO PCDF (Partners in Community Development Fiji). Prior to Peni Seru’s call, however, the community had already been tracking the Cyclone through information provided on the radio and using the skills they had learnt working with PCDF.

Starting in 2011 Plan International Australia in partnership with PCDF had been implementing projects in Ra province that worked with communities, including in Nayavutoka, to build their preparedness to natural disasters. As part of the program PCDF supported villages to form community disaster management committees (CDMC), analyse disaster risks, track cyclones using coordinates supplied over the radio, develop community action plans and conduct simulation exercises to practice what to do in the event of an emergency.

Drawing on the knowledge they had learnt as part of the project the Nayavutoka CDMC began working early in the morning before the cyclone hit to prepare the village. They braced windows and doors, used ropes to help strengthen roofs, cleared the village of debris and collected and stockpiled food and water. 

In Navuniivi, another village a little further north, Joe, the village headman and the chairman of his village’s CDMC, had also been tracking the Cyclone and working with the committee to prepare the village. As the cyclone approached everyone gathered in the community building (the strongest building in the village) to wait out the storm. Winston battered the village for four hours destroying 33 houses and damaging another 39, leaving all but one affected. Significantly, however, no one lost their life nor did anyone suffer any injuries.

Joe and his wife from Navuniivi village, Fiji

Joe and his wife Vatu standing in front of the community building where the people in Navuniivi village sought shelter.

The next morning the committee organised everyone into groups, developed a plan of action and began working together to rebuild their community. A team was formed to document the damage and travel to the provincial office to make an official report. A phone call was also made to PCDF in Suva to also inform them of the impact. Over the next two weeks the village constructed 33 temporary shelters from left over debris, before roads into the area had even been cleared.

Across the communities that Plan International and PCDF had been working in village-initiated recovery activities and self-reporting of post-Winston damage and needs was a common occurrence.  This was important in aiding the overall damage assessment of the province and according to the Provincial Office was typically not seen in villages where these projects had not been implemented. 

Sitting with the CDMCs in Nayavutoka and Navuniivi six months after Winston, committee members told me of the importance of the training they received and how it had given them the knowledge as well as the confidence to act themselves.

Cyclone tracking response training at Nasau Village

Cyclone tracking as part of the response training at Nasau Village.

Nayavutoka suffered greater damage than Navuniivi with 59 out of 64 houses destroyed and tragically two people dying. However, Jim believes that without the preparations the village completed and the quick response of the community themselves after the Cyclone more people would have lost their lives. Importantly the food that they had gathered before the storm was able to sustain them for two weeks before the roads to these remote villages were fully cleared and assistance from Plan, PCDF and other humanitarian agencies could arrive.

Preparedness not only saves lives but is also significantly cheaper than responding to natural disasters.  Over the last 10 year’s disasters have cost the world on average $210 Billion annually; a figure which is estimated to increase to over $400 Billion by 2030. Yet annual funding for disaster preparedness and prevention activities still only amounts to a fraction of that required to significantly reduce disaster risks. 

Winston was the strongest Cyclone to ever make landfall in the South Pacific Basin, and the first Category 5 (the most severe category) to ever hit Fiji. Disaster preparedness activities like those carried out in Nayavutoka and Navuniivi will not prevent cyclones like Winston but they will help communities minimise the immediate impact and support them to recover quicker; ultimately reducing the longer term impact of these disasters.

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