A Killer Cyclone

by Fr Frank Hoare

A wrecked house in Natanuku

Columban Fr Frank Hoare, based in Fiji, first went there in 1973. He is from Ireland.

Severe Tropical Cyclone Winston

In mid-February this year Tropical Cyclone Winston passed fairly close to Fiji on an eastward path towards Tonga. It missed the large islands but did damage to some of the smaller Lau islands. It damaged one of the big islands in the Tonga group and then made a sharp U turn picking up force from the heat of the ocean below as it reversed its path towards Fiji. The government issued warnings to everyone to prepare for the cyclone by nailing wooden shields over windows, by tying down roofs with wire, by storing up food and water and candles and by buying batteries for radios and flashlights. Evacuation centers in schools and halls were prepared.

The cyclone passed over the Lau islands again on Saturday, 20 February. It went over the Lomaviti islands in the middle of the Fiji group before steering a path between the two main islands, Viti Levu and Vanua Lev. It finally passed over the Yasawa group and moved south-east between New Zealand and Vanuatu. It was a force 5 cyclone, the strongest every to pass through the South Pacific, with average winds of 250 kph and gusts of up to 320 kph Its slow pace – about four hours to fully pass any point – exacerbated its effects. The winds were accompanied by torrential rain, and some of the coastal villages were also swamped by massive waves washing over them sweeping up everything in their paths. The smaller islands were struck during daylight, otherwise the 43 deaths recorded would have been far exceeded. 50,000 families are now reported homeless.

Devastation in Natanuku

Ba Parish

The Columban parish of Ba felt the force of the cyclone from about 6:30 p.m. until 10:30 p.m. Fr Nilton Iman (from Peru) and Fr John Lee (from Korea) are both young Columban Associate priests who had taken over Ba parish two months previously. They had never experienced anything like this. Fr Nilton was white and speechless with fright. Fr John thought he would not survive the night. Some louvers in the presbytery (convento) were smashed, and the ferocious wind and heavy rain poured in knocking pictures from the walls, scattering glass, books and clothes over the floor and flooding the rooms. Downstairs parish workers Mosese and Peni with a visitor, Mosese Junior, saw the louvers in the side wall of the garage bulging inwards from the force of the wind. They feared that if the windows gave way then the new parish van would be thrown against the pillars and damaged.

Mosese Jr and Peni tried to hold the louvers despite slipping on the wet floor while Mosese Sr searched in vain ffor a hammer. Mosese Jr was scared that the wind would shatter the louver glass and that the shards would slam into his face. As Mosese Sr returned with a half concrete block the other two gave up on the louvers and retreated to the garage. Mosese shouted to them, ‘Hold those windows – they are our life-saver.’ The two returned and piled one table on top of another, and Mosese Sr nailed them against the windows with the make shift hammer.

Natanuku catechist with grandchild in front of collapsed bure

The experience in the villages

Meanwhile in Natanuku village about 15 kilometers away Catholic villagers welcomed Methodists and members of the Assemblies of God into their newly build church. The Catholic catechist opted to remain with his family and two other families in his Fijian style thatched house. Sometime during the ordeal the main posts of his house gave way and the thatched roof sagged to the ground. The three families survived the terrifying storm squashed together in a small cave like space under the roof. Back in the church as the storm abated one of the Catholic leaders, also named Mosese, remarked to the people, ‘I notice a few new faces here tonight. The bell rings every Sunday and some of you seem a bit deaf to it. Tonight there was no bell but you are here!’

Votua is a big village on the Ba river with houses close together. Their veteran catechist, Ramoce, said that they were surprised that the cyclone came, not from the east as they had expected from past experience, but from the south. The noise of the galvanized iron being folded back, being torn off roofs and smashing into other roofs was deafening and terrifying. The children screamed and the mothers cried inside the houses. People emerged from damaged houses and risked injuries from flying timber and roofing iron to rush into stronger houses nearby. Ramoce pushed tables and heavy wet mattresses against the windows of their house. They were grateful that, because the Ba river had been dredged after the last flood, the river didn’t overflow its banks and flood the village as well. After the cyclone some people complained that the terrible noise of that night was still echoing in their ears. Traumatic memories continue to haunt many.

Iowane, the catechist from the nearby Nawaqarua village, left his family in their solid concrete house to keep watch alone in the village timber church. He was worried about the safety of the Eucharist there. After some time the howling wind burst open the front door of the church. Iowane opened a side door to allow the wind an escape passage rather than risk the roof being blown off. The mats and linoleum were soaked, but the church and Eucharist were saved.

The Aftermath

Back in the parish center when the cyclone had passed on about 10:30 p.m. Peni mixed some yaqona, the traditional Fiji drink, for Frs. Nilton and John Lee who had joined them during the cyclone and were now unable to sleep. There was a call for a hymn, and Fr. John started a hymn to Mary. Fr. Nilton followed up with a hymn to Christ. Mosese shared his amazement that small, light Fr. Nilton had pulled a very heavy tool box, without any help, against the garage door that was smashed open by the wind. Mosese had previously been unable to move that tool box.

When I visited the villages of Natanuku, Votua and Nawaqarua a few days after the cyclone with some food rations I found the villagers nailing down roofs, clearing up fallen debris and drying out clothes and mattresses. Old friends greeted me. The catechists Ramoce and Iowane invited me to share a bowl of yaqona. I was glad to see that the government rations had begun to reach the most affected. As I drove away, the sky was red with the setting sun behind me and the smoky flames of the fires burning rubbish were dotted throughout the village. I was struck with admiration for the courage, faith and good humor of the people of Fiji who refused to be crushed by this very traumatic experience.