Stories: Children, Communities, Futures

Today marks one year since Tropical Cyclone Winston made landfall in Fiji, causing massive devastation to local communities. The strongest tropical cyclone to hit the country and the South Pacific Basin in recorded history, it flattened entire villages in its wake.

A year on and families affected by this disaster are slowly returning to normal life. Although the great outpouring of support from the international community greatly assisted with immediate response efforts in the Pacific nation, the road to recovery post-disaster is arduous and fraught with its share of challenges.

In Fiji, ChildFund Australia partnered with Habitat for Humanity to help children and families recover from the worst impacts of the disaster. During the emergency phase, over 7,000 vulnerable families were provided with emergency shelter kits to repair damaged homes.

Now, efforts are supporting the long-term recovery and rehabilitation of communities. This includes the reconstruction of water supply and sanitation systems in 100 communities where existing supplies were destroyed. The construction of disaster resilient housing is also well under way, with 106 new homes now constructed, and another 200 homes in the planning process.

Safe residences are vital for families in Fiji, where it is estimated that around 140,000 people live in substandard housing conditions. Unfortunately, when a cyclone like Winston occurs, these homes offer little protection and it is these vulnerable groups who are usually hit the hardest. Not only are homes destroyed, but livelihoods and essential infrastructure.

Taito and his family are one of the lucky ones. Having previously resided in a makeshift home cobbled together from scrap iron and tarpaulin, Taito’s family partnered with Habitat to build a new home, which only a month later was put to the test when Cyclone Winston hit. The house remains standing today.

Evidence shows that children are particularly vulnerable when disasters strike. Reducing environmental risks is now recognised as a critical child protection issue, particularly in developing countries, like Fiji, where people are disproportionately affected by extreme weather events. The work of ChildFund and other non government organisations is increasingly turning to disaster risk reduction – building community capacity to cope with disasters and conflicts, and providing relief when disasters strike, so that children are safer and communities are more resilient in the face of natural, political or economic crisis.

ChildFund Australia CEO Nigel Spence said: “While we can’t stop disasters from happening, we can reduce their impact by taking such precautionary steps before they occur.”

“The implementation of disaster risk reduction measures is vital if communities are to have the skills and knowledge to minimise injury and loss during an emergency. By working in partnership with Habitat, we have not only been able to help children and families during the emergency phase, but can help protect them against severe weather events in the future.”

This World Humanitarian Day, the scale of human suffering is greater than at any time since the Second World War. As a result of conflict and disaster, more than 130 million people around the world need humanitarian assistance in order to survive. Underneath these staggering statistics are real lives and real people. They are people like Veniana from Fiji, who lost her home, and feared losing her family, on that frightening night six months ago when Cyclone Winston destroyed her village.

While waiting for five hours in the dark under a tree with her four grandchildren and son at the peak of the storm and floods, 60-year-old Veniana`s only concern during Cyclone Winston was her family.

In Suva to attend a family wedding just a few days before, Veniana`s relatives urged her not to return home, concerned about the ominous weather warnings.

“Everyone told me not to travel but I was worried for my grandchildren. Only my 20-year-old son was home and no one else was there to look after the younger ones,” says the grandmother of four. So she boarded a bus and headed back to her house in the Narau Settlement in Ra.

Cyclone Winston arrived soon after, wreaking widespread devastation in its wake. The worst natural disaster in Fiji`s history, and the strongest tropical cyclone to make landfall in the South Pacific Basin, the cyclone completely devastated communities, leaving more than 120,000 people without shelter, destroying safe water sources and leaving the majority of the population without power.

Describing the cyclone as the devil that came to take their lives, Veniana says: “I had never seen anything like that in my life. The wind was so strong and everything in the house, and the house itself, was shaking.”

The roof and the walls of Veniana`s house were blown away in the wind. “We just remained standing in a circle with nothing around us and with no roof over our head. My grandchildren were screaming and crying and my only concern was to save their lives somehow,” she says.

The houses at Narau Settlement are scattered, with the next house half an hour’s walk away. There was nowhere Veniana could run to for shelter. “We just held each other`s hands and decided to walk to the next big tree nearby. There was no other option,” she says.

“I told the kids to be very fast when moving and we were holding each other`s hands tightly. While moving towards the tree, I fell and my son quickly picked me up and we started crawling more than walking. I remember my 10-year-old granddaughter telling me that she would fly in the wind if she didn`t hold me tightly. I was praying in my heart for nothing bad to happen to us when we were crawling towards the tree. The wind was so strong that I couldn`t even hear my own voice when I wanted to talk to the children.”

Veniana made it to the tree safely and here they waited for the storm to pass. “We were sitting under the tree from 6pm to 11pm in the night. It was a long, hard wait but I thank the Lord because we are still alive,” says a tearful Veniana.

Unfortunately, the flood waters began to rise. “Although we were at a high spot, the flood waters still reached us. It was windy and raining so we were soaked wet. To make things worse, our legs were dipped in flood waters as we waited under the tree. I cannot imagine going through anything worse than what I experienced that night,” says Veniana.

The family also had to be on alert for flying debris. “When we were waiting under the tree, one big roof tin came from somewhere and hit the other side of the tree with a loud bang. We were sitting on the opposite side and were lucky it didn`t hit us,” she says.

After the long wait, the storm finally calmed and Veniana returned to the spot where once her house stood. There was nothing left.

“What we went through was a horrible experience and I don`t want to think about it. I just hope and pray that good things will happen now and I am just glad I was here for my children and that we are alive today,” she adds.

Veniana was the recipient of an emergency shelter kit distributed by Habitat for Humanity Fiji, working in partnership with ChildFund Australia. With the support of Australian donors, 5,000 emergency shelter kits are being distributed to families severely affected by TC Winston.

A 24-month response plan to Cyclone Winston has also been implemented, involving relief, early recovery and rehabilitation phases. Our response is focusing on low-income families in the affected urban, rural areas and informal settlements.

Veniana says: “This is the first time I have received tarpaulins, buckets, ropes and tools. I thank Habitat for thinking about us and helping us to move forward in life.”