31 Dec 2020

Fijians pick up the pieces, two weeks after Cyclone Yasa

5:03 pm on 31 December 2020

The sound of hammers and saws echoed around the hills of Nabouwalu and down the phone line, as Paula Cama described the devastation in his town on the southwestern shores of Vanua Levu.

Little was spared two weeks ago, when Cyclone Yasa raced in off the sea and over Nabouwalu in the dead of the night, its winds gusting as high as 300km/h. Houses were blown to splinters, trees stripped of leaves and colour, and crops and food gardens were washed away.

Devastation wrought by Cyclone Yasa on the island of Vanua Levu, Fiji.

Devastation wrought by Cyclone Yasa on the island of Vanua Levu, Fiji. Photo: Fiji Government

Some people had to flee with only the clothes on their backs, said Cama, a village elder.

"It was one that we haven't felt for quite some time," he said.

Now, they're picking up the pieces. Cama estimated about half of Nabouwalu's houses had been destroyed. The rest had sustained heavy damage. Families were now patching up holes or scraping together shelter with corrugated iron and tarpaulin, collecting debris from around the town.

"People have been trying to pick the pieces up. We are working together. We are trying to pick up the pieces and continue with our lives," Cama told RNZ.

It's a familiar scene across Fiji's northern and eastern provinces, as the country continues to take stock two weeks after Yasa. More than 2,200 people remain in evacuation centres, the government said, and the death toll stands at four.

But the recovery effort is now in full swing. Already, more than 20,000 food and sanitation packs had been distributed across the country, the minister for disaster management, Inia Seruiratu, said.

A resident stands in front of their destroyed house in Bua, Vanua Levu.

A resident stands in front of their destroyed house in Bua, Vanua Levu. Photo: AFP or licensors

Cama said the village had been visited several times, first by teams to assess, then with food, and now with shelter supplies and tools. Government teams had worked closely with civil society organisations, said Vani Catnasiga, the director of the Fiji Council of Social Services.

"I'm heartened by the efforts of local communities to help out where they can in terms of food, water, clothing. Infrastructural damage and livelihoods is where we will probably need the help of foreign partners the most," she said.

Catanasiga said results from initial assessments and a report, expected this week, will help disaster officials understand the full extent of Yasa's impact across various sectors.

Many of the needs are clear. Already, there are mounting fears about the risk of water-borne diseases like leptospirosis and dengue fever in the worst-affected Bua province, and with heavy rain forecast again this weekend, it was a race to get supplies out.

Sights were also turning to the long-term response. While the debris may be cleared, the toll exacted by Yasa's ferocity will linger for months if not years.

In Nabouwalu, Paula Cama said their primary source of both food and income had vanished. Plantations of dalo (taro), cassava and yams were all washed away in the cyclone's torrential rain.

"It's our cash crops. We rely on it, it's our source of food and income," Cama said. "They've all be ruined. It will take months."

It's a scene that's borne out across Vanua Levu. In the main town, Labasa, the local market had been flooded with people from Bua trying to sell what they could salvage.

"They're in town selling and getting an income," said Labasa journalist Serafina Silaitoga. "In Bua villages, people are rebuilding by using the damaged housing material until assistance comes to rebuild from families."

Cyclone Yasa struck the Fiji island of Vanua Levu, causing major damage.

Cyclone Yasa struck the Fiji island of Vanua Levu, causing major damage. Photo: Fiji Government

On Wednesday, an Australian navy ship, the HMAS Adelaide, with its helicopters and landing craft arrived to help with the response. The 600 crew on board include army engineers and construction teams, a primary health care team and a small boat platoon.

But with several reported outbreaks of Covid-19 in Australia, the Adelaide and its crew will be subject to strict criteria. The health ministry said all crew had already tested negative for the coronavirus, and they'll be tested again before they disembark on Vanua Levu.

Staff from the Australian High Commission said the crew would work with Fiji military personnel, with whom they will form a quarantine bubble for the remainder of the response and contact with local people would be avoided.

But even amid the debris and destruction, it wasn't all bleak.

"Christmas has been OK for us," said Paula Cama, the elder in Nabouwalu. "With what little things we have managed to stick together and enjoy it."

In Nabouwalu last Friday, the sun shone over the rubble. Families downed tools for a day and gathered. There was laughter, there were jokes, there was kava.

"It's kind of a way to forget the trauma that we had with the cyclone. We do things on a community basis, we came together as families to celebrate Christmas with whatever we had, whatever could be offered on the table.

He chuckled down the phone.

"The sprit was there."