Fiji, we stand by your side

Some of hundreds of Fiji Red Cross volunteers who have been helping Fijians pick up the pieces of their lives after last year’s devasting Tropcial Cyclone Winston. Photo: Damien Light/Zoom Fiji
Judy Slatyer, Australian Red Cross’ CEO, recently visited Fiji to hear how recovery efforts are going one year on from Cyclone Winston. This is what she saw.

It’s been a year since Fiji was struck by its most powerful cyclone ever — and the strength of the country’s people to adapt and cope is everywhere you look.

On 20 February 2016, Tropical Cyclone Winston claimed the lives of 44 people, and left thousands homeless and in need of urgent help. In December I visited Fiji to meet our colleagues and see firsthand how we are helping, and what’s needed next.

I heard stories of how the cyclone picked up a fully packed shipping container and dropped it hundreds of meters away; how large sections of buildings completely disappeared.

I heard how the forest above one village turned white, how the stripped-bare trees looked like a forest of skeletons.
Some of the devastation caused by Tropical Cyclone Winston. Photo: Navneet Narayan/IFRC

It’s hard to imagine what it would be like to live through a category-five tropical cyclone: the noise, the force of the winds, the fear.

It’s even harder to imagine the resilience and strength needed to pick yourself up, and begin to recover when everything around you and everything you rely on has been destroyed or damaged.

But the people of Fiji are resilient and that is exactly what they are doing.

I heard how in the capital Suva, shortly after the cyclone abated, the air was filled with the noise of chainsaws, as people started to clear the roads so emergency responders could do their job.

Fiji Red Cross — with its 440 volunteers and another 3000 on standby to assist during disasters — is the country’s most widely recognised and respected humanitarian organisation. Its Winston response operation was the largest it has ever undertaken.

Its staff, volunteers and members — supported by other Red Cross societies in the region, have been working relentlessly to help Fijians recover. They have also been preparing for the next cyclone season and replenishing shipping containers across the country with relief items –tarpaulins, dignity kits and packs with clothing.

Our visit to Wailotua village. Photo: Susan Slattery/Australian Red Cross

Fiji, like other countries in the Pacific, is at risk of a range of natural hazards, think floods, cyclones, earthquakes and drought. Fiji Red Cross has also been working with communities to upgrade their disaster plans while in parallel learning from the experience of Winston.

It is still early days and recovery will take a long time. Particularly when Fijians are also coping with new disasters — floods, droughts and wild weather.

Right now we’re working to support Fiji Red Cross’ longer term recovery strategies.

I saw some of Red Cross’ work up close when we visited Wailotua village. The village was on the edge of the cyclone’s path, roofs were ripped off houses and the community hall was damaged. It also suffered significant flooding, during the cyclone and several times since.

Makarita Racani (right) and her daughter Lusiana were among those who have been supported by Fiji Red Cross as they recover from the affects of Tropical Cyclone Winston. Photo: Corinne Ambler/IFRC

Fiji Red Cross has been supporting the people of Wailotua to develop their disaster management plan. We sat with the community to talk through their plan, which includes a flag system to communicate the proximity and urgency of a disaster. It also covers things like the secure disposal of waste (so it doesn’t become a problem in a disaster) and an agreement on who will help those such as the elderly and disabled.

One comment that really struck me was from the Fiji Red Cross Secretary General, Filipe Nainoca, who said ‘a resilient community is a healthy one first’.

As I sat listening in the village hall, the connection between a community’s health and its ability to prepare for, respond to and recover from disasters became very clear.

This is the reasoning behind Fiji Red Cross’ work to integrate their health and disaster preparation work in the community. This is an area we’re working closely with them to support.

Visiting our Fiji Red Cross colleagues. Photo: Fiji Red Cross

Our long term commitment is the most important thing we can offer our Fijian colleagues. Filipe described this commitment as pivotal to the strength and scope of their recovery operations.

The motto of Fiji Red Cross is ‘always there’. It is a motto we could also use to describe our partnership.

We will be there for Fiji Red Cross. For as long as they need us.

  • Thank you to the Australian community who donated more than $4.2 million to our Tropical Cyclone Winston Appeal. Australian Red Cross was the largest single financial contributor to the recovery effort.

Sign up to our newsletter for more stories like this.

Story by Judy Slatyer — Australian Red Cross CEO