10 May 2016

Historic Fiji town tries to recover from Cyclone Winston

3:22 pm on 10 May 2016

A heritage aid worker says Fiji's historic town of Levuka needs engineers and materials to help rebuild historic homes and infrastructure which were damaged during Cyclone Winston.

Five historic buildings at the UNESCO world heritage site on the eastern island of Ovalau were completely destroyed during the February storm.

Levuka dates from the 1820s and developed to become Fiji's first capital, before it was moved to Suva.

It was inscribed on the UNESCO world heritage list in 2013 as a rare example of a Pacific colonial port town with its stone sea wall, timber clad shops, lanes and hillside colonial-era homes.

Several historic buildings in the UNESCO world heritage site of Levuka, Fiji were damaged by Cyclone Winston

Several historic buildings in the UNESCO world heritage site of Levuka, Fiji were damaged by Cyclone Winston Photo: UNESCO

After Winston an initial assessment found five historic buildings completely destroyed, 13 buildings with their roofs completely gone, and 20 needing minor repairs.

A heritage aid worker and former CEO of the Levuka Town Council Suliana Sandys said the listed historic homes suffered the worst.

"It's put us back a few more years. Even before Cyclone Winston we had our little challenges that we were trying to overcome but now it's even more."

"It's not only physical damage but emotional damage as well. The home owners are really feeling it having lost part of their heritage," she said.

Fiji's post cyclone rebuild is especially tricky in Levuka as many damaged buildings will need specially sawn timber to match the original wider planks of Oregon pine imported from the United States in the town's early days.

Historic buildings in the old Fijian capital, Levuka which is a UNESCO World Heritage site

Historic timber clad buildings in Levuka Photo: RNZI

The owner of two shops in the historic town, Bhupendra Kumar, said he closed one after it was inundated by high waves during Winston.

He said other building owners are also finding it a struggle to do repairs.

"A lot of these old timbers came from the States in the old days. It's Oregon (pine). This timber, we can't get it now and unless some organisation comes in in a big way ... for example a couple of building owners because of the damage and the flooding have decided to close down."

The old capital of Fiji, Levuka, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site

The old capital of Fiji, Levuka, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site Photo: RNZI

The Vice President of the Levuka Tourism Association John MIlesi said the cyclone has set back Levuka's growing niche tourism industry.

He said after the cyclone tourist bookings fell off considerably and marketing is still proving difficult because people think the town has gone.

But Mr Milesi is fairly optimistic and said enquiries from tourists are slowly starting to rise again.

"The town is just battered but the shops and the old buildings within the heritage site they're fine. You know there's bits of work needs to be done on them but I mean it's not totally wiped out like you would see some of the villages around here. It's just battered and a bit bruised."

John Milesi said the local economy needs the flow of tourists.

"It's most important to do that to get some money going for the people on the island. All the root crops and the veges and fruit and everything all got wiped so you have a situation where people are given rations but that only happens once a month and so they need money to be able to go the supermarket and buy food."

Ms Sandys, who works for the Japan International Cooperation Agency, is helping to put a heritage management plan in place for the town.

She said everyone needs to pull together to ensure Levuka's future.

"We need an engineer. We need a building planner. Although there's funds available, what has been poured in by government and other parties are not used accordingly . We do not have a heritage officer based in Levuka, we do not have a CEO for Levuka town council in place, (there's) the lack of legislation just to help us protect the conservation of the town."

Ms Sandys said the town also suffers from people not respecting the town's historic nature and she says there needs to be stiffer penalties and more understanding of the town's heritage.