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Responding to Tropical Cyclone Winston

16 May 2016


Remains of a kindergarten at Naweni Village, outside Savusavu. Credit: OCHA/Ben Negus
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Among the first international responders on the scene was a United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination team, which is part of the UN emergency response system for sudden-onset emergencies.

“It was so frightening with the sea flooding in all around us,” recalled Savenca Taganekece . He was describing running for his life up the escarpment in his small village on the Fijian island of Koro as cyclone-induced tidal waves smashed into his village destroying his home.

Koro Island was ground zero for Tropical Cyclone Winston’s fury. The Category 5 cyclone cut a path of destruction across Fiji on 20 and 21 February 2016. Solid brick houses were razed by a combination of raging cyclonic winds and a tsunami-like storm surge.

Winston was the most powerful cyclone to ever strike Fiji packing wind bursts of up to 320 km per hour. The cyclone ended up killing 44 people and affecting up to 350,000 others—the equivalent of 40 per cent of Fiji’s population. The total damage is estimated to be more than US$250 million.
Recognizing the severity of the disaster, the Fijian Government requested international assistance the day after the cyclone struck. Among the first international responders on the scene was a United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) team, which is part of the UN’s international emergency response system for sudden-onset emergencies.

A 15-person team - which included staff from OCHA’s Regional Office for the Pacific, based in Fiji’s capital, Suva—provided immediate humanitarian assistance. Soon after their arrival, UNDAC members established a Reception and Departure Centre at Suva’s International Airport for UN and NGO workers, as well as for Emergency Medical and Search and Rescue teams from Australia and New Zealand. An UNDAC team member also temporarily joined the National Disaster Response Management Office to support civil-military coordination between the Royal Fijian Military Forces and foreign-military assets deployed in support of the response from Australia, New Zealand and France.

The UNDAC team remained in-country for almost one month and provided a wide array of support, including close support to OCHA’s Office of the Pacific-led humanitarian fundraising and coordination with partners on the ground. The team was also successful in using information collected through assessments and other operational partners to produce detailed maps and infographics of some of Fiji’s most devastated areas, including hardest-to-reach islands.

To prevent gaps in the overall emergency response, the UNDAC team quickly established field observation teams charged with undertaking rapid damage assessments. These teams visited 130 sites on Fiji’s main islands of Viti and Vanua Levu and were often the first members of the international humanitarian community to visit heavily damaged areas.

UNDAC member Mr. Ben Negus, who undertook a three-day assessment in southern areas of Vanua Levu, Kioa and Taveuni Islands, was impressed with the resilience of the local population and rapidity of the Government’s early response efforts. “Areas to the east of Savusavu (Vanua Levu) and on Taveuni Island were close to ground zero and saw high levels of devastation,” Mr. Negus stated. “That said, I was amazed with how quickly roads had been cleared, fallen trees chopped up and [where available] infrastructure reconnected: the Government really did react quickly.”

The team also successfully rolled out the largest field test of Kobo—a new open-source, data-collection tool that allows aid workers in particular to collect data in the field using mobile devices, paper or computers. Drawing on lessons learned from the Nepal earthquake response, in which the Kobo platform was deployed in a limited role, the data collected was used to support the humanitarian response, especially for people worst-affected by the disaster.