It’s been quiet on my blog for a few weeks. A lot has happened here in Fiji since my last post: Cyclone Winston swooped through Fiji on the 20th of February and left a path of destruction behind, namely in some outer island groups and northern Viti Levu. Then, only days after that my laptop broke completely as the whole thing fell onto my kitchen floor and damaged irreparably and last but not lost my cell phone got stolen in Damodar City’s food court. Yeah, I’d say I’ve had better weeks in my life.
Anyhow, I have a new working machine and I am back in the business. Writing and working on my master thesis, editing and sorting my photos and taking care of all that other stuff that has to be done on the computer. It is crazy how dependent I am on this little but sophisticated piece of electronic and it struck me hard during the last three weeks. But I also realized a computer is just a computer and a cell phone is just a cellphone. That is NOTHING compared to what people have to deal with after Winston..
The day before Winston eventually made landfall on Fiji ground, I had made my way back to the capital Suva. I had once again spent the week tagging juvenile sharks in my village close to Ba, when the forecast arrived me on Thursday more less looking like this:
Damn, something really big would be coming. As we know now, so big, that it turned out to be the biggest storm to ever have made landfall in the southern hemisphere! The buses were cramped that Friday and I wasn’t sure whether it was because of Winston, but I basically shared one row in a bus with five other people. On my right I had a huge Fijian only leaving enough space on the seat for my right ass cheek. On my left an Indian guy who wasn’t as lucky to find a seat (I kept wondering: is he luckier or less lucky?), kept taking the little bit of space of the bus corridor, no more than 70cm. It was really tight and uncomfortable, but hey, it was just a five hours ride.
Back in Suva my girlfriend and I prepared ourselves and our home in Lami as good as we could: we bought loads of candles and can food and stocked up our cigarettes and wine supply. Everything prone to be flying around was taken inside and all window shutters closed. We didn’t really know what more to do and all that was left now was to wait and hope for the best.
Late Saturday afternoon the wind finally picked up and the gusts intensified. The contrast between inside the house and outside couldn’t have been bigger: we were having a glass of Merlot as Beethoven’s fifth symphony was loudly playing on my laptop trying to out-compete the noise of branches banging against our houses and the pouring rain. Trees were blowing in the wind like little plants. The force of nature was really frightening and impressive at the same time.
With the night falling, we couldn’t really see anymore what was going on, but the trees and branches kept hitting our house and rain started to make its way inside the house coming through every crack in our roof, even through the lights! After a few hours we had several 1cm deep puddles and simply no way we could prevent it. All towels, all blankets and even our dirty washing was soaking wet on the floor as we tried to dry up the place. As expected, we lost electricity at around 9pm and there we were: sitting with candles and waiting for the storm to end. Just before hitting Suva, Winston changed it direction towards the north sparing the capital of its strongest winds. I kept thinking about my village close to Ba – it was right in Cyclone Winston’s path along with dozens and dozens of other small villages along the coast. There a tons of light built houses which would never be able to withstand these forces. Terrible thoughts.
As the morning came, we curiously made our way on the streets together with many wandering people investigating the damage around our neighborhood. A couple of trees had fallen down and power cables were lying on the streets. Lami market didn’t look too good, a few windows were broken and all kind of debris was scattered around, but other than that everything seemed to be fine and no major damage around here. On the radio we heard that a nationwide curfew had been called out until Monday morning 5:30am. Not to keen on getting into trouble with the Fijian police force, we soon made our way home and kept checking our phones for national updates. Communication to most areas was completely lost and no one really knew what happened, but with the passing hours more information gradually leaked through. The Cyclone had impacted hard and damaged thousands of people’s homes, destroyed crops, sunk ships and unfortunately had also taken lives.
We spent the week as normal as we could even though we didn’t have water (one of our house pipes broke) and no electricity. All schools and universities were closed and the country was still busy assessing the damage and clearing up the streets. Suva’s city center somehow went back to normal quite fast with all the generators running there. After five days our water was back and after ten days of candle light evenings our electricity came back on too. A week after Winston, Amanda and I hired a car and went to the village I am working in. I just wanted to make myself a picture of the state the village was in and have some conversation with the headman, to see what I could do. As we were driving along Queen’s Highway towards Ba, the damage was seen from time to time but it only really started after Lautoka, Fiji’s second biggest city and the sugar capital of the South Pacific. Tons of uprooted trees, huge steel made fallen signs, broken houses and scattered pieces of wood and all kinds of materials could be seen just from the road.
Fortunately, in my village no one got hurt. Though, there was all lot of materialistic damage with 14 houses completely destroyed and several others having minor damages. Never losing their incredible spirit, we were greeted by smiling and waving Fijians, welcoming us warm-hearted as always. We delivered basic food supplies, talked to headman for a few hours, got a tour around the village and left again for Suva. I knew now that I would not be able to come back for around three weeks to continue my fishing. The people here had better things to do than to go fishing with me to find juvenile sharks. Science had to wait. There was nothing I could do than to accept that. I was just a little worried not to be able to finish my project here before going back to Germany as ISATEC seminars would start again in April.
Parts of the village looked horrible and in general the whole appearance had changed to what I was used to just ten days ago. Countless trees had either gone or were cut down. Parts of damages houses were still scattered around along with power cables lying on the grounds. Besides the houses, the church roof was damaged and the school had suffered, too. Like everywhere else in the country they stayed closed for a week to allow for the most urgent repairs. People here were still waiting for help but Kemueli told me the Red Cross came to assess the situation. Apparently, a private German family from Lautoka were the first to arrive with food supplies and other basic materials. The displaced families had found shelter in houses of friends and family members. The community spirit of the villages surely helped in these times of need, a noone is left for oneself. Everything could have been worse, I thought for myself.
Since I did not have a computer and could only sporadically use a university one, I had lots of time to take care of other things. I was able to read a number of papers that I wanted to read for a long time, started structuring my thesis and gave thought to ways of writing it. In the meantime, I accompanied Kerstin, a PhD student from Switzerland and working on bull sharks, to two tagging trips in the Rewa river. She has just started sampling the area and so far hasn’t gotten lucky with catching them, but you never know! The sampling in the river is quite different to what I am used to in Ba, especially the massive amounts of mosquitos. I am keen to follow projects developments and already look forward to her results in the coming months and years!
Besides that, I turned 27 on the 7th of march and had a fantastic day out hiking through Colo-I-Suva with Amanda. It is a nearby forest park with great bird-watching possibilities (as usual with a little bit of luck) and the chance of swimming in lonely waterfall rock pools. I also joined a few more shark dives with the fantastic crew of Beqa Adventure divers (see here for a detailed report on their shark dive), having spectacular minutes underwater with incredible close bull shark encounters, including a huge slap of a dorsal fin of a fully grown females in Amanda’s face! Who else got slapped by a shark’s fin so far? 😀 Stay tuned for a report with my best images of around twenty shark dives!
The people here need all the help they can get. So many homes have to rebuilt, schools repaired, power reinstalled and and and.. every donation is appreciated! The Red Cross is doing fantastic work down here, of you like to help them with a financial contribution please visit their site www.redcross.org.au/cyclonewinstonappeal.aspx.
Another possibility to donate some money would be Fiji’s Disaster Relief Fund. Have a look at their page to find more information!
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Tom Vierus is an award-winning photographer, filmmaker, and marine biologist based in Suva, Fiji Islands. This blog is dedicated to his assignments and to sharing some behind-the-scenes footage.