Aid Worker Diary: Tropical Cyclone Evan
Tropical Cyclone Evan hit the Pacific islands of Fiji, Samoa and the French territory of Wallis and Futuna in December 2012 leaving a trail of destruction. The strong winds and heavy rains caused serious damage to houses, schools, hospitals and key economic and tourist infrastructure across all three island nations. In total, four people died, more than 16,000 people were displaced, and 1400 houses destroyed. The total population of the three islands is more than 1.1 million people - so an event like this is devastating but it could have been much worse had there not been such extensive planning as the storm advanced.
The Head of OCHA Japan, Masaki Watabe, was deployed on mission to OCHA’s Regional Office for the Pacific in Suva, Fiji to support the Government led relief and recovery effort.
My primary role in Japan is to develop closer partnerships with various organisations but I also help contribute to OCHA’s emergency response capacity in the region. Based in the world’s most disaster prone region, as an OCHA staff member I am always on stand-by to be deployed when needed, and this time around, it was my turn to help.
When I arrived in Fiji's capital Suva, everything looked pretty much normal except some fallen trees and traces of minor landslides, because the cyclone caused most devastation in the western and northern parts of the country. In the Western Division of Fiji alone, 699 houses were completely destroyed and another 614 partially damaged.
This was my first trip to the Pacific, yet I saw a completely different face of Fiji from what I would have expected as a tourist traveller. For the local people, the threat of climate related disasters are real, imminent, and ever intensifying. Prior to Evan, Fiji experienced severe flooding in March 2012, and many who suffered at the hands of this cyclone were still recovering from that disaster.
The Government of Fiji had responded quickly by setting up evacuation centres to provide food, water and shelter to those who needed it. 11,696 people were displaced in 240 evacuation centres across Fiji at the peak of the disaster. Relief items were delivered with the assistance of neighbouring countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Japan.
My role was to support the Government’s response and coordination efforts, primarily by compiling and distributing OCHA’s situation reports, in order to publicise the post-cyclone needs and response activities to a wider audience.
During a trip to Lautoka, one of the most disaster affected areas in the Western Division of Fiji, I met with Suliasi Koroi, the headman of the Navutu settlement of more than 700 residents. Mr. Korosi recalled that when the cyclone approached his settlement “the rooftops of houses were damaged; trees went down and the sea water came up closer to us”. However, the residents of the settlement knew where to take refuge and the Government supported their transport. “Although early warnings through the radio came a bit late, entire villages were able to evacuate before the cyclone hit.” said Mr. Korosi.
After residents returned home, the biggest challenges have been repairing their homes and rehabilitating livelihoods such as fishery, farming and other seasonal jobs. In addition to the Government support, a number of non-governmental and community based organisations continue to provide shelter kits and food assistance.
I felt privileged to have helped develop a Humanitarian Action Plan (HAP) that was built on consultations with the national clusters. With a total requirement of US$32 million, the HAP has became a key government document that captures the overall humanitarian needs, on-going response and required resources for the immediate three months, while establishing a basis for the longer term recovery and rehabilitation efforts beyond this period. “By introducing the cluster approach and the HAP, we want to become a model for disaster relief coordination in the Pacific region.” says Mr. Waqanisau, aid coordinator of the National Disaster Management Office of Fiji.
On the flight back to Japan, I reflected on my unexpected mission to Fiji. The calm smiles of my hard working Fijian colleagues as they strived to overcome the impact of the devastation are the images that will remain with me for a long time. I look forward to returning to Fiji again soon, but for my next visit, I would prefer to bring my family along and show them the beautiful county - on vacation.