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Day and Night of Terror – Tropical Cyclone Winston

February 26, 2016 ·  By columban.org

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Columban Fr. John McEvoy, 2/25/16.

Dear Readers

Never before did I find it so hard to write a few lines about a given situation or to send on some photos. As I said with a dispatch of photos recently sent, ‘The nation is numb, shell-shocked and overwhelmed, so are we. The situation has emotionally affected us all and like the nation we are somewhat paralyzed, crying within and unable to get up and move into action.

Never before did I find it so hard to write a few lines about a given situation or to send on some photos. The nation is numb, shell-shocked and overwhelmed, so are we. The situation has emotionally affected us all and like the nation we are somewhat paralysed, crying within and unable to get up and move into action.

Fiji-Destruction-1The Holy Year of Mercy: Tropical Cyclone Winston had no mercy on us whatsoever. It wreaked havoc throughout this little island nation. Winston came in from the East and tracked westwards between the two main islands knocking everything in its path – with average winds of 250 km per hour gusting to 325 km per hour. It was a category 5 cyclone – never before experienced in Fiji and the strongest recorded winds in the Southern Hemisphere. Thus all of the islands in Lomaiviti (middle Fiji) received the brunt of Winston’s fury, destroying homes and livelihoods by the thousands and cutting many Fijians off from utilities, telecommunications and medical services.

The Cyclone had passed us by about 10 days previously but did a U-turn gathering speed and momentum all the time. So basically we had good warning that a serious cyclone was on its way – but lots of people will leave it to the last moment to secure their houses and property and thus be ready to evacuate. The Fijian Government acted promptly on Saturday morning by imposing a curfew in the major cities and towns from Saturday evening to Monday morning – this surely saved many people from been electrocuted as electric wires and poles were strewn all over the place in towns and villages.

The only Columban parish to be badly hit was Ba where Fr. Nilton Iman assisted by Fr. John Lee. The three schools in the parish have been extensively damaged. St. Teresa School lost about 4 or 5 class rooms including the IT room and its computers. The presbytery too lost most of its windows and louvers. The Parish hall was used as an evacuation centre, sheltered a number of families. Trees were uprooted all around the compound and one of them came down and crashed onto the roof of the Lay Missionary house which is also in the church compound. The children’s dormitory and a few class rooms in Navala Catholic School were blown away. The children from the dormitory are now billeted in the Church there. The new two story classroom in Votua also lost its roof. This school building is used as an evacuation centre for the villagers of Votua – in times like this and in times of flooding. St. Columban’s Church Votua was fairly badly damaged.

The town itself is wrecked – with six or eight huge secondary schools had their roofs blown off. Such a sad sight to see all these find buildings with just their walls remaining. The main sports stadium in the town also fell prey to the fury of Winston. The experience must have been horrific and frightening for Frs. Nilton and John as it would be their first experience of a tropical cyclone. To make things worse – all communications with Ba and everywhere else in Fiji was cut. We couldn’t contact them or they us – same with so many other people living in Suva – trying to contact their relatives and friends in the islands – even as I write there are areas and people that haven’t yet been contacted.

Suva was not as badly hit as the Western Division, however, the power was off for several days – only came back here in Raiwaqa on 2/24, and there are still areas in the capital without power. There are 5 squatter settlements in the parish of St Pius X, Raiwaqa. Most of these people were evacuated to nearby centres – school buildings and church halls etc. I did a quick trip around some of them on Sunday morning in spite of the curfew being in place. Most of their little houses are in low lying places and thus sheltered escaped the wrath of Winston. The owners were in fact returning to their settlements early Sunday morning. One of the settlements was flooded as the area is tidal – they moved into the nearby Methodist Church. They were visited by Columban Fr. Donal McIlraith and our Columban students on Sunday morning and provided them with enough provisions for the day. Fr. Donal repeated this for the last few mornings – they have now moved back to their house “shacks.”

The Church and Presbytery here had roof and ridge tiles and flashings blown off. Apart from that and the water blown into both premises by the winds – there was no more structural damage to the compound. Huge damage was done to the parishes and the villages of Solevu, Savusavu, Levuka, Taveuni, Rabi, Natovi, Rakiraki, and of course the Catholic Schools in these parishes suffered extensively too. Their story has yet to be told.

Summary: Winston has claimed 42 lives thus far. A total of 19,294 people sought refuge in 253 evacuation centers across the Western Division. Some 8867 people were situated in 83 evacuation centres in Ra and Rakiraki.

The International Community is responding quickly and generously with promises of money, food, aid of every kind, New Zealand and Australia were the first to commit – sending in survival kids, the use of planes and helicopters. Japan and India has come aboard – so now too is China, Britain and the U.S. Some channelling aid and money via the Red Cross. Of course the Churches too are all involved. They are on the ground with their suffering people.

The Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama has called on all Government agencies and personnel to prioritise the deployment of personnel to these communities to provide relief support and assistance. He has advised all agencies in charge of relief efforts to ensure that all possible options are looked at to ensure that an immediate response is provided. The devastation of the damage to homes is enormous and relief teams comprised of military personnel, health, rehab personnel are now providing relief support.

A Government relief team that landed in Koro late last night / early morning were greeted with grim images of devastation everywhere. They will provide immediate relief assistance which includes water, medical supplies, food and clothing. Fijians living in the villages are working with the relief team led by the Fiji Military Forces to begin work to restore some form of normality to their lives. It may take a long time to fully restore services and bring normality to the lovely Island of Koro. In other parts of the country, relief teams are being deployed to affected areas and are working with local and international aid agencies.

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