Assessing the Needs of Children in the Aftermath of Fiji’s Cyclone Winston

Iris headshot

Iris Low-McKenzie

CEO of Save the Children Fiji

Fiji

February 22, 2016

The night Cyclone Winston barrelled through Fiji was one of the worst experiences of my life. It was difficult to sleep with roaring winds outside and trees falling.

My children were scared as the winds howled and screamed.

Thankfully my family and my home in Suva in the east of Viti Levu island survived the night, but it was nothing short of terrifying.

Tree trunks were literally snapped in half and power lines with live wires lay across many roads. 

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Save the Children's response team assesses damage after Cyclone Winston barreled through Fiji

The clean-up will be immense.

Cyclone Winston was one of the most powerful storms ever in the southern hemisphere. Some will say this is evidence of climate change in action but that is a debate for later.

Right now, aid agencies like Save the Children are trying to get a clearer picture of what's happening in some of the more remote parts of Fiji, far from the capital and other towns.

My greatest fear is for those in outlying islands, which assessment teams are finding difficult to reach. Fiji consists of more than 100 inhabited islands, all of which were impacted by this monster storm.

Until communications are re-established, we won’t know exactly how these islands have been affected, and by how much the death toll is set to rise.

I pause and think back nearly a year ago now to another monster storm in the Pacific – Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu. It was days before the extent of the damage was known there, so we must brace for more bad news coming out of remote parts of Fiji.

The authorities have moved quickly to ensure that Fiji’s main airport at Nadi is cleared of rubble and re-opened. This will allow relief flights with aid workers and supplies to arrive.

We are fortunate because Fiji is home to a number of large and effective humanitarian relief organizations that will all work in coordination with one another to ensure that the needs of the most vulnerable are met.

I am of course particularly worried about the ongoing impact this disaster will have on children.

Children are the most vulnerable following disaster. So while other aid agencies, the UN and the Fijian Government with support from other nations figure out how to help communities physically recover, Save the Children will work with the Ministry of Education and UNICEF to ensure children’s educational needs are met following a number of schools being partially or completely destroyed.

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Many homes were left exposed after Cyclone Winston tore apart structures

Save the Children in Fiji has a history of working on education programs. It makes sense therefore that our relief operation over the coming weeks and months will focus on getting children back to school or at least into temporary classrooms, should their schools have been damaged or destroyed.

Save the Children knows from decades of experience working in disasters all over the world in places like the Philippines and Iraq that it's important that as many children as possible recommence their education quickly following emergency.

That’s because education – even informal lessons – give children who have lived through a terrible ordeal, a chance of normality, a safe place to learn as well as be supported by caring teachers and classroom assistants.

Part of Save the Children’s emergency response will also include setting up “child friendly spaces” at some of the 80-plus evacuation centers still housing families in Fiji. Child Friendly Spaces provide children with a safe place to hang out and play with other kids, while at the same time giving parents the much-needed opportunity to go out and assess the damage.

All the early signs are that Cyclone Winston will have a lasting impact on Fiji, an island nation and popular tourist destination visited annually by almost 700,000 foreigners.

It is our hope that at this difficult time Fiji is close to the hearts and minds of all. The scars from this storm run deep but with support from the international community we will recover.

To learn more about our work in Fiji, click here.