By Mere Nailatikau, Media and Communications Manager, Australian High Commission in Suva, Fiji
One year ago, on 20 February 2017, Tropical Cyclone Winston carved a devastating swathe across Fiji. The cyclone, with its three hundred kilometre per hour winds, passed over Vanuabalavu in the Lau island group, and the islands of Taveuni and Koro, before making landfall in the Western Division of Fiji’s largest island, Viti Levu.
When the sun rose on Sunday morning, 21 February, the night of terror may have been over but the magnitude of loss would take weeks to realise. Ocean swells had pulled homes into the sea and entire landscapes had been rendered unrecognisable. The list grew every day. Over 30,000 homes and close to 500 schools were damaged. Over two-thirds of Fiji’s population were affected. Forty-four people died.
But in the shadow of shock and grief, what also grew was determination and a sense of community. Led by the Fiji Government, people working in ministries, provinces, districts, those in NGOs and faith-based groups, UN agencies, the private sector, the Fijian diaspora and, of course, affected communities themselves, rallied to help. Australia joined in their efforts.
Three days after the cyclone, I accompanied Australia’s High Commissioner to Fiji, Margaret Twomey, to deliver hygiene packs and water purification tablets to affected communities in Tailevu. Less than two hours out of Fiji’s capital Suva, entire hillsides were bare, homes (if left standing) were twisted masses of timber and corrugated iron, schools were concrete shells. Power lines were down and road signs blown away. People’s homes, the communities they had built their lives in, the schools they had attended, the places where they had worshipped, were, quite simply, gone.
A year on, the impact of Winston is still with us. Now we reflect on what it has taught us.
Firstly, we know women often bear the brunt in disasters. A mother at an affected school in Ra told me how she would pick freshwater ferns to supplement the rations used for her daughter’s school lunches. She spoke of her helplessness when her youngest child wrapped his arms around her waist and told her he was scared as the family sheltered under their floor of their home for five hours while the winds were at their height.
Women, more often than not, are the ones who keep communities together in times of crises. They, along with children and the elderly, are also often the most vulnerable during and after disasters. We can all do more to recognise the important role of women in planning and leading response and recovery efforts after disasters.
Secondly, disasters place particular challenges on people with disabilities. When Foreign Minister, the Hon Julie Bishop MP, launched Australia’s Disability-Inclusive Strategy in 2015, we were reminded that disability-inclusive development is an issue of human rights and dignity. People with disabilities are instrumental; their leadership must be genuinely promoted and encouraged.
Finally, responding and recovering to any disaster benefits greatly from being as local as possible and as global as necessary. In the hours and days following the cyclone, the Australian High Commission in Suva was inundated with messages from Fijians and Australians offering their help. This Fijian is not just speaking for herself when she says that assistance from governments, organisations and individuals the world over, were and always will be so very much appreciated. Our gratitude can never be sufficiently put into words.
Here in Fiji, the generosity of those affected also stands as a reminder of our shared humanity. Neighbours brought each other much-needed water, food and took each other in. Local members of response teams, themselves affected by the disaster, threw themselves with gusto into post-disaster efforts.
We live in one of the most exposed regions in the world to natural disasters. How can we more quickly ease the plight of those suffering? How can we curb the devastating economic impacts on small island states? How can affected countries build on domestic capabilities to make the most of the assistance received from friends and neighbours?
No response is perfect. The impact of a tropical cyclone with the magnitude of Winston was always going to be severe no matter where it made landfall. However, if we are to improve, we must acknowledge what can be done better.
Natural disasters will continue to impact Pacific countries. Three weeks from now will mark the second year since Tropical Cyclone Pam hit our neighbour Vanuatu. At the time of the writing of this blog post, two significant tropical disturbances hover close to Fiji. We are living in a ‘new normal’. Australia, as assured by its leaders, is committed to helping its neighbours deal with the consequences of disasters and, better yet, alleviate some of the risks.
Ultimately, resilience does not negate loss. Nor does gratitude negate the need for continuous improvement. There is much more to do and no one entity can do it alone. None of us can afford to fail.
Australia continues to increase its efforts on disaster preparedness. There are a growing number of Australian humanitarian experts deployed throughout the Pacific to build expertise in National Disaster Management Offices to respond to natural disasters. Australia is investing in disaster management leaders, including women leaders, through humanitarian scholarships. Building community resilience is a focus through partnerships with Australian NGOs, the Australian Red Cross, local partners and governments. Support is provided to the World Food Programme to pre-position life-saving supplies throughout the region. Australia is also developing innovative solutions to tackle the unique challenges of the Pacific, such as through the Pacific Humanitarian Challenge.
Mere Nailatikau is Media and Communications Manager at the Australian High Commission in Suva, Fiji. She joined DFAT in 2013 and is a graduate of the University of the South Pacific.