26 February 2016

THE Salvation Army in Fiji is continuing its ministry to help people affected by Cyclone Winston – the strongest ever recorded in the southern hemisphere. The disaster has affected 90 per cent of Fiji’s approximately 900,000 population. At least 42 people are known to have been killed, with that figure expected to rise when contact is made with remote communities. Aerial images show that some villages have been completely destroyed, with reports of serious damage and destruction of schools, clinics and two hospitals.

Four days after the cyclone struck, Fiji’s two largest islands – Viti Levu (where The Salvation Army’s divisional headquarters is based) and Venua Levu – were still largely without electricity and many areas had no water supply.

Fiji Divisional Commander Major David Noakes decribes the storm as ‘vicious’, saying: ‘Fiji is severely battered and its people extremely traumatised. The damage in villages is extensive, with a great many homes destroyed and left roofless. There is kilometre after kilometre of crop damage, with power lines down.’ Almost all Salvation Army halls and many officers' quarters were flooded, as the tremendous force of the wind pushed water into places where nothing could stop it. The quarters at Ba was badly damaged by the storm and the officers there are in deep shock, says the major.

The Salvation Army was not in contact with its corps in Savusavu (on Venua Levu) and Taveuni Island in the north east for several days as communication and access was very difficult. Major Noakes says preparations are being made to fly to both locations as soon as possible to assess damage.. People are very traumatised and living in lean-to shacks made of material from destroyed homes.

Ahead of the cyclone, The Salvation Army established 10 evacuation centres at its halls. The New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) Aid Programme funds The Salvation Army in Fiji to provide immediate and ongoing emergency relief to cyclone and flood-affected people. This includes the provision of emergency containers stocked with mattresses, tarpaulins, generators, shovels, wheelbarrows, chainsaws and protective clothing. There is also an arrangement with major Fiji food supplier RB Patel to ensure sufficient food and water for each of its evacuation centres.

Due to the government curfew, some Salvation Army centres were not utilised, but the Army’s centre at Nadi was full, with 40 people seeking shelter at Lomaivuna, 30 at Sigatoka and Ba, 20 at Saweni and six at Nasinu. All Sunday church services were cancelled to ensure the safety of attenders, although Raiwai Corps held a service for those who had sought shelter there. At Sigatoka Corps, The Salvation Army has offered assistance to those living in a nearby squatter camp, where the oldest resident is 85 and the youngest just nine months.

The situation for many Fijians is now desperate, explains Major Noakes. Low-lying areas were severely affected by storm surges and ongoing flooding along major river valleys was likely to drive more people to seek help with food, shelter and clothing. Fijians face challenges to food supplies and livelihoods, with agriculture, fisheries and tourism industries badly affected by the disaster.

At Rakiraki Village (between Suva and Nadi), where the cyclone first made landfall, there is almost complete devastation. ‘It can only be described as catastrophic,’ says the major. ‘The people’s response ranges from being in total shock to a determined resignation. There is a desperate need for water and The Salvation Army is sending supplies from Suva.’ The officers at Rakiraki Corps Plant were forced to evacuate their quarters due to flooding, but have since returned home. They were initially joined by several Salvation Army families who lost their homes in the cyclone.

The Fiji Government was encouraging people to leave evacuation centres to return to their homes and help with clean-up efforts. However, at Nadi Corps 15 families were still living at the Army hall after their homes on the banks of the Nadi River were inundated by water. Although they were doing their part to help in the cyclone’s aftermath, Major Noakes says it seems likely that those from the hard-hit Nadi area will need ongoing shelter and food. Lautoka Corps is also still operating as an emergency centre, with people returning to the Army hall at night to rest from repairing their homes. The officers at Nadi Corps were involved in providing post-cyclone chaplaincy services at Nadi Airport. All Salvation Army officers in Fiji are trained in cyclone readiness. This includes training in emergency crowd management and grief counselling. 

In Rakiraki Village, Major Noakes estimated 60 to 70 homes to have been destroyed. ‘It is clear that there will be huge need for assistance in rebuilding homes,’ he says. ‘The Fiji Government seems to be emphasising damage on outlying islands, but our visits confirm urgent needs on the Western side of Viti Levu from Ba through to Rakiraki.’ 

The Salvation Army’s New Zealand Coordinator for Emergency Services, Major David Bennett, has travelled to Fiji to assist with the Army’s response. A working group at divisional headquarters in Suva has also been formed, with Lieutenant Saimone Gatauraua (Divisional Public Relations Officer and Corps Officer, Suva) acting as the Army’s government liaison. Prior to becoming an officer, Lieutenant Gatauraua had long experience working on development strategies and infrastructure within the Fiji Government.

Initially, The Salvation Army will continue to support people’s basic needs for food, shelter – including the provision of ropes and tarpaulins – and pastoral support. The Army is also exploring the possibility of rebuilding housing in one of the affected villages where it is already at work. More details will be released as plans are developed, assures Major Noakes, adding that it will be important to do this work in collaboration with local government and tribal chiefs in the affected area.

‘Thank you to the many Salvationists who are praying for the people of Fiji,’ says the major. ‘Please continue to pray, as people’s lives will be very different for a long time to come. Salvationists in Fiji have dedicated themselves to serving their communities, despite the impact of the cyclone on their own lives. We are told our evacuation centres had a good atmosphere about them and there is a deep appreciation of the Army’s care.’

Report by IHQ Communications
Based on a report from the New Zealand, Fiji and Tonga Territory

Tags: South Pacific and East Asia, Emergencies