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Gratitude and sorrow in cyclone’s wake

Saturday 5 March 2016 | Published in Regional

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SUVA – Grateful tales of survival and sorrowful stories of tragedy continue to emerge from shattered towns and villages on the mainland and offshore islands of Fiji where the people are still reeling in disbelief two weeks after Cyclone Winston struck.

New images have revealed showing the full extent of the devastation caused by the storm, which is reportedly the biggest ever recorded in the Southern Hemisphere, as photographers and emergency workers gain access to the worst-affected villages.

Scenes of total destruction give credibility to communities who say they will never forget the few hours it took for the cyclone to take from them everything they owned, including family and friends.

Australia Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) reporters were among the first people to reach the isolated and battered community of Nai Vutu after the road in was cleared to allow aid to start flowing.

Teacher Varaone Radagia said he sheltered in his house with five others when the most powerful storm to make landfall in the southern hemisphere hit their village.

“About six of us were in the house and I told them ‘you have to move’.

He said first the verandah was blown away and as houses the outer walls collapsed, everyone crammed into Radagia’s kitchen.

“Three gentlemen plus a mother and the daughter, they all crammed in under the table,” Radagia said.

Then the kitchen wall collapsed and the group only survived because the falling wall landed on the freezer.

One of his neighbours, Manueli Naqica, also had a story of miraculous survival.

He was desperately trying to hang on to two infants when the house disappeared and they were, literally, blown away in what became a flying bed.

“I held my children tight in case they were injured or killed,” he said.

Amazingly, no-one was injured.

Cyclone Winston may have taken villagers’ houses and possessions, but not the tradition of welcoming visitors.

Even in the midst of the crisis, when the ABC arrived, a ritual thank you was observed, along with the obligatory kava.

The ABC was told of an even more isolated village, Naseyani, that had been cut off since the cyclone.

Washed out roads and debris-strewn river crossings had made roads impassable.

After much effort, the ABC crew made it through and discovered a village where most of the houses were flattened.

Lavenia Lauroko, her brother and her mother were in the capital Suva when the storm hit. They had just buried her father.

They returned to find their home had gone.

“Nothing at all,” Laurokosaid. “We came and then we were just, like, crying because when we came up to the river we found about half our stuff down there.

“We’ve just got the clothes that we took when we went to Suva, that’s all.”

Now friends and family are building a temporary shelter which will be their home for who knows how long.

“I cried a lot,” said Lauroko’s mother, Senimili Mocelutu.

“It hurt me deeply because we just lost our father, then this disaster came as a total shock. This is the first time I’ve experienced this ever.

“I cried a lot because we lost everything.”

Just down the road, little remains of the Naseyani Primary school. The school had been recently renovated with Australian aid money. Now there is not much worth saving – the books, the broken desks and chairs will all go on a bonfire as the debris is cleared.

“Only about five per cent of what is left will be salvaged,” head teacher Gordon Fong said. “The rest will be burnt.

“We don’t have power and I think it’ll be down for a couple of months, but we are lucky we have got water.”

In one of the village churches they sang and prayed for better days. But there was no singing at the Seventh Day Adventist church, which has literally gone with the wind.

“We lose hope when we saw our churches damaged,” church elder Eleni Tinai said. “For us, we have to take hands together and build up a new church for our community.”

With so many houses destroyed, a tarpaulin shelter strung up over some wooden poles was serving as home for 11 people, mostly children, and no-one could say when they would live in a house with water and electricity again.

Off the cyclone battered north-east coast of the main island is Ovalau, an island of 8000 residents, where many are struggling to cope in aftermath of the cyclone.

Most of the damage in coastal villages was caused not by wind, but massive waves of up to four-metres high.

Amorisio Ratuvada was waiting for his son and daughter to arrive back on the island for a funeral ceremony he wished was not happening.

His granddaughters were there and were a comfort for him, but nothing could bring back his wife, 59-year-old Taufa Amanaki.

She was trying to shelter from the storm, along with the rest of her family, but was crushed when the home collapsed.

She died later of her injuries.

“I can’t tell you how much I was suffering that day and we were very close and we loved each other,” Raturvada said. “The real pain is from deep inside because she was like a part of me.”

The cyclone was accompanied by a massive tidal surge. Fiji TV reported the harrowing case of one couple – Alifereti Samu and Mereani Biukula – who lost their 10-month-old baby to the waves.

“That day we were told to leave our house and move to the next one. We thought we would only be affected by strong winds,” Alifereti said.

“When we were in that house, waves began to rush into the village. When the winds began to rise, we then ran for safety.

“When we got to the other side, the water level was up to my neck. The house began to fall and waves began to pound on us, we drowned in the waves.”

Alifereti held onto to his 10-month-old son for as long as he could.

“He is our firstborn, we still haven’t found him. We believe he has been taken out to sea. We are at peace with the thought that he has found eternal life.”

Patemosi Basaga, his wife and nine children had an early dinner on the night the storm. When it intensified the family separated into smaller groups, the three youngest children going with the two eldest, while Basaga took the other children to an evacuation centre and waited for his wife who was on the other side of the village.

She hid in a house with two others but when that building collapsed, they ran in different directions. Basaga eventually found her lying on the ground between two houses, having been struck by flying debris.

“I hugged her and tried to resuscitate her but she wouldn’t wake up. I tried and tried but I knew she was gone,” he said.

“She was a very caring, kind-hearted and loving mother. She used to look after everyone from the elderly to young children. She was a very happy woman.”

Basaga lost all his farming crops too – the cassava, banana, chilli and cucumber – “it’s all gone”.

His village, Qelekuro, a fishing and farming hamlet right by the water, had 98 houses before Cyclone Winston. Only 11 remain intact.

Aid agency Unicef said along with the tens of thousands still homeless in evacuation centres, many were sleeping rough in the streets of towns and villages all around Fiji.

Spokeswoman Alice Clements said there were many traumatised, homeless children needing urgent help.

“They’ve seen things and experienced things that no child should experience.”

Hundreds of schools in Fiji remain closed after being destroyed or damaged, with the damage bill for schools alone estimated to be at about $27 million.

Clements said authorities were trying their best to get children whose communities were most affected by Winston back into school.

- PNC sources