“When Category 5 Tropical Cyclone (TC) Winston struck Fiji in February 2016, my family was one of the worst affected. We lost our home and we almost lost all of our belongings,” said 14-year-old Talei Qalovaki of Taveuni Central Sanatan Primary School during the National Disaster Awareness Week (NDAW) and Disaster Risk Reduction Day (DRRD) observance held in Waiyevo, Taveuni, Fiji.
“We all knew that there was a cyclone but we did not anticipate its severity because we have no knowledge of the amount of damage a category 5 tropical cyclone could cause,” said Qalouvaki.
TC Winston peaked at around 360 kilometers per hour making it the Southern Hemisphere’s strongest and most powerful cyclone ever recorded. Koro, Ovalau, and Taveuni suffered the devastating impact of the cyclone with many villages flooded and destroyed by storm surges, hundreds of people injured and lives lost.
In her emotional oratory speech, Qalovaki shared memories of the horrible day, she, five siblings and extended family watched their home disappear.
"I felt ashamed because I was the only student whose family was affected by TC Winston in my school, but I was thankful for my mother and my father who helped us with school, and provided a lot for us.”
The Year 8 student made a strong call for members of the community to be prepared for a disaster, “All necessary procedures should be followed to ensure that your homes, offices and major structures are built to withstand a category 5 tropical cyclone and not one that will crumble at the first sign of trouble.”
She added, "Special efforts must also be made to reach and plan for the care of vulnerable segments of population particularly the children, the elderly, individuals in health care and correctional facilities, and people living with disabilities.”
In an exclusive interview with UNDP Pacific Office in Fiji, Qalovaki shared the shame and hardship her family still faces post-Winston and the teasing received after her home was blown away.
“I am thankful to the NDMO for organizing such an event and providing us students a platform to share our views on Natural Disaster Awareness and its importance and also to learn from it,” said Qalovaki.
NDAW and DDRD celebrations in Waiyevo, was the culmination of a weeklong disaster preparedness and resilience community and school awareness carried out in Taveuni by the National Disaster Management Office (NDMO); aligned to target D of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction “to reduce disaster damage to critical infrastructure and disruption of basic services” contributing to Sustainable Cities and Communities (Sustainable Development Goal 11).
Over 15 primary and secondary schools participated in the oratory, poster, and banner design competitions held throughout the week.
Filimoni Tagicakibau, NDMO Disaster Risk Reduction Officer, Northern said that it is the continued responsibility of NDMO to build community capacity and provide community-based reduction risk training to improve resilience and coping mechanisms.
Tagicakibau said that trauma from TC Winston is still fresh in the minds of the people of Taveuni.
“Visiting communities and informal settlement in Taveuni, we received positive feedback. We ran awareness workshops for community representatives, Turaga- ni – Koro’s (Village Headman), District Advisory Councillors and the Mata -ni – Tikina’s (District Representatives), youth groups and women’s groups. We expected 31 participants but on training day, we had more than 50 participants. An indication that people want to learn and prepare should a disaster strike again,” said Tagicakibau.
As a result of the workshop, communities are now aware of disaster management mechanisms and their role as disaster officers on the ground. This includes their role as counsellors to ensure safety for all during and post-disaster.
"For NDMO we need to keep improving, I think this year we did a great job in having the first workshop with community representatives that was tailor-made for them. After the workshop many shared past difficulties when trying to translate weather bulletins and how they are now able to understand meteorological terms and understand its impact,” said Tagicakibau.
A live simulation tsunami drill was also carried out in the village of Lavena and Somosomo. Adi Maca as she is fondly known as, was the oldest to participate in the village of Somosomo.
“I am 71 years old, the tsunami drill today was very useful to me. Our homes are all near the sea and this is the first time to take part in something like this. It wasn’t easy walking up the steep slope, there are a lot of us here, but there are still a lot of villagers who didn’t take part in the tsunami drill. We here will know what to do and where to go if a tsunami happens,” said Adi Maca.
Adi Maca tried to remain strong as she spoke of her 92-year-old mother, the oldest in the village of Somosomo who remained at home. The thought of her mother alone should a tsunami eventuate was getting too much for Adi Maca.
“I will go home and share what I learned today, should a tsunami happen we will be prepared, we will be ready, we have young men at home, and we will together help my mother come up to higher ground, no one will be left behind.”
The UNDP Pacific Office in Fiji, through the Disaster Resilience for Pacific Small Island Development States (RESPAC) project supports National Disaster Management Offices in the Pacific and local governments to enhance capabilities in disaster preparedness, post-disaster recovery planning, building capacity to conduct Post Disaster Needs Assessment (PDNA). This is part of the broader thrust institutionalising capacities to manage effective disaster recovery processes to reduce risks and promote resilient development.
In 2018, through the regional project ‘strengthening school preparedness to tsunamis’ in 18 Asia Pacific Countries, 115 school drills and over 60,000 students and teachers were trained in tsunami preparedness education. Phase 1 for Pacific countries included Fiji, Solomon Islands, Samoa, Papua New Guinea, Tonga and Vanuatu. Phase 2 commenced this year and includes Kiribati, Tuvalu, Palau and Federated States of Micronesia. The project is implemented by UNDP with support from the Government of Japan.