Fiji: Seeking refuge in a cave during Cyclone Winston

“I saw the water coming and I felt afraid. I ran up the hill and hid in the cave.”

From a cavern in the rocks high above his village, Eremasi, 14, watched as huge waves engulfed his home, school and village. The brand new kindergarten at his school, which had opened the day before the cyclone, was now completely demolished. “I was alone in the cave and I could see people in the village trying to save their homes and belongings.”

Eremasi standing at the mouth of the cave that saved his life overlooking his village. (UNICEF Pacific/2016/Hing)

Koro Island has a population of approximately 5,000 people. In February 2016 it was left devastated by the worst cyclone to ever hit the southern hemisphere. Tropical Cyclone Winston catapulted through Koro and left widespread devastation in its wake.

Eremasi remembers, “When I came down from the cave, I could see that the water and wind had thrown clothes and belongings far away and we had to pick up as much as we could. Lots of the houses were damaged and some were completely gone.”

UNICEF supplies were among the first to reach Koro on a Government ship from Suva only two days after the Cyclone. UNICEF Pacific’s Joseph Hing was on the boat and recalled his first impressions upon reaching the island:
“We arrived around 7 o’clock (AM) to Koro island yesterday (23 Feb). We didn’t see the island that clearly but as we sailed closer we started to smell the carcasses of dead livestock that were floating past the ships. When we smelt those we knew that this disaster was really, really bad.

As the morning mist started to clear, we started to see the island much clearer. It looked like someone took a torch and just burnt from one side to the other. There was nothing… all you could see was just brown… Brown trees. Just bare sand.”

Supplies that arrived to Koro in that shipment, and later shipments, included large tents to act as temporary classrooms, teaching supplies to replace items lost or damaged in the storm, and backpacks containing schools supplies to help children transition back to school.

Eremasi tells us his story of survival and shows us where he took refuge. (UNICEF Pacific/2016/Hing)

Eremasi was happy to receive a UNICEF school bag full of school supplies so that he could return to school quickly. “I lost all of my school books in the cyclone. I even lost all of my pens and notebooks.”

Water containers, soap and water purification tablets were also distributed to ensure the safe consumption of water and to prevent the spread of disease, which can happen so easily in the aftermath of a natural disaster such as this. Local staff nurse Akisi Nituku, says with relief, “Koro has been lucky and there has been no signs of disease outbreak.”

It is six months on and many are struggling to get back on their feet. The remote location of the island and the logistical challenges in reaching it have hampered recovery efforts — it takes 12 hours to travel by commercial boat from the capital city of Suva.

Water and hygiene supplies arrive on Koro island (UNICEF Pacific/2016/Hing)

In June, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) hosted a multi-agency meeting to address the significant, ongoing needs on Koro Island.

As well as the school supplies and tents, UNICEF has been supporting the Ministry of Education with a school lunch programme in eight schools. Family health outreach has also been carried out in communities across the island and multiple birth registration drives have taken place to replace or issue birth registration documentation. The Just Play Emergency Programme, which uses football to communicate critical emergency related messages to children, has also been underway on Koro Island with training of volunteers, and community festivals lifting spirits.

By Laura Gibbons, UNICEF Pacific