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Between A Rock And A Hard Place

When Cyclone Winston hit Fiji last year, ferocious winds knocked down everything in their path and a tsunami-like storm surge removed almost all that remained.

13-year-old Esther glances up at the rocky hillside as she recalls the day her house was washed away. “The water came up to my neck — but inside the community hall it only covered our feet.”

“We tried to wash away the water using our clothes but the waves kept coming.”

Category 5 Cyclone Winston reached Ovalau Island, Fiji, on the morning of Saturday 20 February. It brought with it ferocious winds that knocked down everything in their path — and whipped up a tsunami-like storm surge that took away almost everything that remained.

In Tokou village, the winds began in the morning around 9am and peaked around lunchtime — but then the waves came, rushing across the nearby beach and relentlessly pounding Esther’s village for over three hours.

“When we finally went outside about 5pm I saw my house was destroyed. A big boat was in the middle of the village and our clothes were everywhere,” says Esther.

The kitchen is all that remains of her family’s home. The bare concrete foundations stand testament to Cyclone Winston’s power — and hint that this small community, nestled against the hillside barely 30 metres from the beach, was not prepared for the other risks that a cyclone could bring.

Of Tokou’s 130 houses, more than 60 were damaged or destroyed by the cyclone and subsequent storm surge. To the casual observer, what remains looks more like the shell of a village, unsuitable for human habitation. The community is doing their best to clean up but much bigger questions remain.

“My village is talking about moving up the hill above sea level” says Esther, looking around her. “It’s good to move so if a big tsunami comes again — it can’t come to us.”

To relocate an entire community is no small matter, but Tokou and many other low-lying villages across Fiji are faced with the harsh reality of relocation as cyclones in the region become stronger and cause more damage, increasingly generating deadly storm surges as they sweep across the Pacific Ocean.

For Esther, everything has changed. “Before the cyclone, our houses looked very nice, now they’re damaged. Half our school is also damaged.”

Less than 500 metres further along Ovalau’s single dirt road, Loreto Catholic Primary School is also struggling to get back on its feet. With support from UNICEF and the Ministry of Education, the school reopened a month after the cyclone, using tents as temporary classrooms while the nine classrooms destroyed in the cyclone are repaired. Much like Esther’s village, it will take a long time for her school to fully recover — and the same questions about relocation hang over the school.

Loreto’s Principal, Master Petero, knows the risks better than most. His house normally sits on the school grounds around 30 metres from the sea — but now it sits around 60 metres inland, lifted completely off its foundations and swept next to another school building by the powerful waves. “My son saw it moving and he yelled to me ‘Dad, our house is coming!”, he says with a wry smile.

Master Petero is clear that the adjacent village needs to relocate — but he sucks the air through his teeth when asked the same about his beloved school. “Yes, it would be better,” he concedes. “The damage costs are $547,000 FJD so we may as well relocate it. There may be another Category 5 and another $547,000 to pay.”

Esther is pleased to be back at school again. Since the cyclone her family has depended on her to help with the clean-up efforts so getting back to a routine and spending time with her friends is welcomed. Her mother is working in Fiji’s capital Suva, so it’s just Esther, her brother, uncle and grandmother at home.

“After Winston we came outside and saw there was no road left — we had to make a new one with soil. Every day I help to clean up — we flattened the tin from our rooves, picked up the rubbish and burned it. The soldiers came and cut the big trees down. The digger came to clean up the road.”

“I had packed my school books, pens and ruler before the cyclone but I forgot my uniform. The next day I found it in the drain of my neighbour’s house — about 150m away from mine. So I washed it and dried it again.”

“The forest was brown after the cyclone and there was no food when we went to the bush. Before Winston we never saw the bats during the day, after Winston they go out during the day looking for food. Even they have no home now.”

Months on from the cyclone, Esther and her family are still without their own home, sleeping at night in the village hall — along with approximately 30 people whose homes were also destroyed. Bedding and a few salvaged belongings are neatly stacked along the walls of the hall during the day — and put to use at night as families return to their temporary shelter to rest.

Despite the huge stress and disruption in her world, Esther is still focused on her big plans for the future. Her eyes sparkle as she confides “I want to be an air hostess, asking people if they need water. I want to travel around the world and see the big cities and the big roads and big bridges like you see in the movies”. As vulnerable villages like Tokou take stock after Cyclone Winston, it’s clear that Esther may not be the only community member on the move in the near future in a region increasingly beset by unrelenting natural disasters.