“Na, do you have enough canned food at home? If the winds start to pick up you’ll come here right?” I questioned my mother in Fijian as I handed her several bottles of filtered water. It was 3 in the afternoon, Friday January 19th. I’d just received word from Peace Corps that Cyclone Winston, that unpredictable tropical storm, had taken a sudden hairpin turn straight back to Fiji. I’d be consolidated with my fellow Koro PCV on the other side of the island, due to his proximity to the police, health center, and higher ground. I was reluctant to leave my village, but had to follow Peace Corps protocol. I told myself it was nothing more than that, protocol; that headquarters were simply being extra cautious. Still, a faint anxiety loomed.
“I don’t want to leave you all, Na” I explained, choking back tears, imagining what might happen to my family’s tin house if the storm came for Koro. “It’s better you go,” she said resolutely, “we will be fine and you have no choice but to listen to your boss.” Had this been a year ago, I might have missed the slight shadow of trepidation over her countenance, the crackle in her throat that betrays her cool exterior before every trip I take. At this point we still had no idea just how strong the storm was going to be. No idea that I would be emergency evacuated to Suva the following morning, just hours before Cyclone Winston ripped apart our island, our home. All I knew was that I wouldn’t be able to brave it with my village, and that alone felt like a cyclone ripping my heart to shreds.
The days following the cyclone are a blur that feel more like weeks. The first reports of damage to Koro came through the radio, 24 hours after Winston had passed through: “We’ve received word… Nabasovi… quarters completely destroyed…” I sat on the floor of the Peace Corps office, our evacuation center, dumbstruck. Did I hear that right? Somehow a call went out from my village before the storm hit in full force- the school compound had already been nearly been blown away. The was only the beginning. I winced at the thought of the devastation that must have followed the storm’s arrival to my little sea-side village. I reminded myself to hold a peaceful place somewhere deep inside that could connect to my family back on Koro. I’ve been centering myself in that place since.
In the days following the storm contact with Koro was minimal. Luigi (fellow Koro PCV) and I knew that the cell towers were down, but kept calling anyways. With a storm of this impact we worried that it could be days before ground contact was established, and that wasn’t something we could wait for. Finally we got through to our District Officer; he’d just walked 7 hours to catch service on his TFL line and ours was the first call to get through. “Everything is gone…” I remember him telling us, voice strong but hollow. In the hour that followed Luigi and I held our cell phones together on speaker, connecting D.O. with a government minister in Fiji, listening as the first few known facts post-storm were relayed.
It was several days before I could reach Nabasovi. Every night I looked out at the full moon, grateful that my family and friends had some light to see each other, to find strength in each other’s gaze. I maintained hope though that Nabasovi had fared okay, that at least everyone survived. Still, it was a trying time. Finally, I got through to the school TFL line and my Na came on the phone. She sounded shell-shocked: “We’re all alive”, she said in a voice not so familiar, “but the village is unlivable, Keresi, everything is gone…”
One of my uncles from the village relayed his experience of the storm. “We made it out of the church just moments before it collapsed,” he explained, “had it not been day time, well, I cannot think of what may have happened to us.” He described hiding out on higher ground as the rains came down: “My eyes burnt, like I’d touched them with chili. Then the rain trickled into my mouth and it was salty. It was sea water. Blowing from the other side of the island.”
Fast forward over a week, and the reports tell us the following facts: TC Winston is the strongest storm in recorded history to hit the Southern Hemisphere, with wind gusts over 200 mi/hr and waves nearly 40 feet high crashing into villages. The fatality count is at 42, the number of homeless at least in the many tens of thousands. All of Fiji was impacted, some areas worse than others. Koro was nearly wiped out; any given village of the 14 is lucky to have a roof or two left. Our crop loss is expected to be 100%. The newspapers are covered with headlines of devastation, especially in Koro, cyclone ground zero: “The Smell of Death in Nasau”, “Call to Close off Koro”, “Island of the Homeless”.
That is the bad news. And I think quite enough of it. The good news is that though the devastation is unimaginable, so is the resilience of the Fijian people. All over Fiji we see images of people helping one another pick up the rubble, of children smiling. The Fijian spirit is truly unshakable.
Since my first call with Na I have been in contact with her twice, Nabasovi District School & Nursing Station, as well as Koro family and friends in Suva. Nabasovi is hopeful that we will rebuild sooner rather than later, that our island will heal. Koro, and all of Fiji, is picking itself up and getting to work. But we aren’t doing so alone-currently the Australian Navy is working tirelessly along with the Fijian Army and Government on Koro to clear roads & debris, deliver rations and build temporary shelters. Everything may be gone, but rebuilding has begun.
For now I am stuck in the capital, staying out of the way of the initial aid and relief efforts to Koro. I feel grateful to be safe, but am itching to get back. The government has requested for no civilian travel between Koro for now, lest aid efforts be negatively impacted. I’m hopeful though that with all of the attention from the government and other nearby nations that Fiji will rebuild and I will return home to Nabasovi. It may be months, but I’m optimistic.
For now, my thoughts are on the future of Koro. How can we rebuild in a way that will help us be more resilient through the next cyclone? What can we do to re-establish food and water security? What role can I play in advocating for my island, connecting aid organizations with the ground? Will the world powers recognize their role in climate change and own up to their partial responsibility for storms such as these decimating whole nations? These are big questions, but I have the time and space to think about them.
I’m confident that there is a reason for why I’m in Fiji at this time, and I’ve never felt more committed to my service and to the Fijian people. While I’m not sure how the next several months will unfold, I’m certain that I will find a way of doing what I can in this very different next chapter of service. The love and strength of my community here continues to inspire me, and I hope those of you throughout the world as well. More updates to come soon. For now know that while Fiji needs all of the international support we can get, we are “stronger than Winston”.