Fiji is reeling in the aftermath of Category-5 Cyclone Winston, the largest cyclone to ever hit the Southern Hemisphere.
The latest reports are showing a confirmed death toll of five, with higher figures feared for the outer islands. Communications across Fiji have been so severely affected that it is currently impossible to approximate the full extent of the devastation. Fiji Radio has reported that one of the fatalities was an elderly man from Nabasovi on Koro Island, who was crushed by a falling roof. Thousands of people have been cut off from power, water, and phone lines across the nation, whilst hundreds of homes have been destroyed across the Nausori, Korovou, Rakiraki, Ba, Savusavu, Taveuni and Lau island groups.
Coastal villages have been battered by waves up to 12m high, and it is feared in some regions that entire villages have been wiped out. Some fifty houses have been destroyed in the village of Navaga on Koro Islands, whilst the town of Ba in Fiji’s northwest was reportedly hit so badly that no house has escaped without damage.
A nation-wide curfew remains in place, with Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama stating that the restrictions on movement are likely to be lifted at 5.30am Monday local time. Bainimarama has also formally declared the crisis a national disaster, which will remain effective for thirty days. Schools have been closed for at least the oncoming week and many hospitals remain without power. All flights have been suspended, with no indications yet of when airlines will resume operations.
One of the greatest fears is for those living within rural farming communities, whose livelihoods have been severely damaged by the high winds that hit speeds of 330 kilometres-per-hour at their peak. Many inhabitants of Fiji live in poorly constructed tin housing, and the first priority for these citizens will be attaining immediate alternative shelter. Disruption to local water supplies looms as an even larger threat, with the Red Cross warning that the dangers of extreme thirst and starvation will only increase as the hours tick by into the initial recovery phase.
The New Zealand government has donated $50,000 towards relief efforts and pledged up to a further $170,000. Australia's Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has expressed that Fiji can expect Australia’s support and assistance. It is too early at this stage to ascertain the full extent of Fiji’s recovery needs but a formal Australian aid commitment will likely be forthcoming in the next few days. Facebook has activated its Safety Check feature throughout Fiji, allowing users to notify their networks of their safety.
Relief efforts in the immediate aftermath have been frustrated by the extensive power cuts and road blocks, with fallen trees and telegraph poles littering the streets. Both mobile phone connections and landlines have been affected, leaving aid agencies unable to contact and coordinate local partners. Continuous heavy rain and flash flooding in low-lying areas continues to occupy emergency response teams as government and aid workers struggle to get families to higher ground, with mudslides also posing a further risk to recovery operations.
Cyclone Winston has been the most severe storm to hit Fiji in recorded history. Australian Red Cross worker Susan Slattery reports that "the scale of the devastation is absolutely massive". Al Jazeera have linked the unprecedented scale of the storm to the severe El Niño system which is currently producing extreme weather conditions around the South-Pacific, ranging from extreme drought in Papua New Guinea and the Marshall Islands to torrential flooding in Peru.
Tonga has of course already been hit twice by Winston within the last week. Tonga’s northern islands were struck as Winston passed over the island group of Vava'u, first as a category two storm and later as a category four. Whilst some 200 structures were damaged the islands have so far escaped without fatalities, and power has largely been restored.
Whilst ocean temperatures continue to circulate at some 1.5 degrees above average, Pacific nations can only brace themselves for further extreme weather events. Storm and gale warnings remain active over many of Fiji’s northern islands. As of Sunday night, Cyclone Winston is still a Category 5 storm, tracking some 280km northwest of Fiji from the outer island of Viwa. How long this storm system will last, and where Winston goes next, remains difficult to predict.
You can donate online to the Australian Red Cross Cyclone Winston appeal.
Sally Andrews is the Indo Pacific Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.
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