30 May 2016

Cyclone Winston's legacy

3:38 pm on 30 May 2016

Three months after Cyclone Winston hit Fiji, Juliette Sivertsen visits some of the destroyed villages it battered and finds herself humbled.

A house near Rakiraki damaged by Cyclone Winston.

A house near Rakiraki damaged by Cyclone Winston. Photo: RNZ / Juliette Sivertsen

In the north-eastern villages of Viti Levu, the children are playing rugby on the grass.

They don't have a ball - they're just kicking and throwing an old water bottle.

But the makeshift rugby ball is the least of their worries: many of them don't have a house to live in.

Three months after Cyclone Winston hit, the biggest storm to ever make landfall in Fiji, thousands are still living in emergency housing tents.

Villages near Rakiraki and along the Kings Highway on Viti Levu remain swamped with a sea of blue tents, perched next to homes with no roofs, power poles on near 45-degree angles, holes in the ground where trees were once firmly rooted and tarpaulins covering any salvageable sections of houses.

Fijian power poles sit at 45-degree angles after Cyclone Winston.

Power poles sit at near 45-degree angles Photo: RNZ / Juliette Sivertsen

In one home in Rakiraki, there's a chair suspended mid-air between two storeys, held up only by pieces of precariously perched slats of timber.

This is three months after the event.

There's been a lot of progress made in those months, with international aid pouring in to assist in the immediate aftermath. The people are staying positive and looking ahead. But it is clear there is still a long way to go, and many more months, if not years of hardship for those living in the worst hit areas.

I visit the Rakiraki Sugar Mill.

"It's very sad," the guard tells us as we look at the destroyed mill. We cannot enter the site due to safety concerns as pieces of corrugated iron hang partially stripped off the mill building.

The guard says over 200 people used to work here before the cyclone. Now, it looks like an old run-down factory, akin to a haunted ruin. It will be repaired, he informs us, but it will take a long time. In the meantime the 200 plus workers have had to leave their families to find work elsewhere.

The damaged sugar mill at Rakiraki.

The damaged sugar mill at Rakiraki. Photo: RNZ / Juliette Sivertsen

The story is the same in many areas.

Crops for the year have been completely decimated and the farmers have no work. Cyclone Winston hit after a long period of drought and many farmers have had no choice but to leave their rural homes.

Women and children are left behind, many struggling to cope with the trauma of the category five storm - and the aftermath.

Jay Dayal of the charity Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) has been at the forefront of the recovery. His team have visited countless villages to provide emergency assistance and counselling. The stories he shares are harrowing.

"You can't stay in the tents in the daytime, it's too hot inside and they don't have very good ventilation. And it is also unsafe to sleep in the tents at night, you can get attacked. There have been a series of rape cases coming through."

Blue tents dot the post-Cyclone Winston landscape of Fiji.

Blue tents dot the post-Cyclone Winston landscape of Fiji. Photo: RNZ / Juliette Sivertsen

Mr Dayal says when some women came to stay in the evacuation centres, they would remain awake at night.

"These ladies that came from the rural community, they would wake up at night and stay up later because they were scared that somebody might come in and attack them or physically abuse them."

The rebuild has begun, but it is happening slowly. Thousands are still without power.

VHP has imported a thousand solar lights and begun distributing them to those most in need. Up to 600 homes have received the lights.

"We are targeting primarily homes which have children at schools so that in the evening they are able to study and do their homework," says Mr Dayal.

The psychological impact of the storm is another story. Mr Dayal says children in particular have been the worst affected, with noticeable behavioural changes. He wants more groups to provide targeted psychological counselling to traumatised children.

Other areas in Fiji escaped the storm, but everyone I spoke to around Viti Levu knew someone who was affected - a sibling, a cousin, an uncle, a friend. Those who escaped the storm express their gratitude.

Like many in Fiji, Jay Dayal explains tourism is the backbone of Fiji - and they need visitors now more than ever to boost the economy. But he encourages tourists staying at resorts to spend time outside those resorts and see the "real" Fiji .

"Fiji is not only about white beaches it's not only about clear water. It's about everything. Fiji consists of our rural sector, our farmers, we have all different ecosystems around the place, people need to come and see what's happening in the country. Perhaps their spending outside the resort will help the economy as well."

There is one thing that strikes me the most: despite everything, people still know how to make a foreigner feel welcome.

"Bula!" they yell and wave from the street as we drive through the villages of half torn down homes. The smiles are infectious. There are blue tents, destroyed houses and piles of debris everywhere - and the people couldn't be any friendlier. It is humbling.

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