Evacuations, destroyed homes and chaos throughout Fiji
Surfersvillage Global Surf News, 23 February, 2016 - World traveller, photographer and lover of Fiji, Peter 'Joli' Wilson was hunkered down on the island when the worst cyclone in many years bore down on the tiny island chain. Houses were destroyed, dozens of people perished and some say it will take the island years to recover. In the below blog Peter takes us onto the island of Namotu (Tavarua's neighbor) and into the storm
Bula from Namotu Island Fiji, Tropical Cyclone Winston actually came into my life two weeks ago. It had just been named as a Category 1 cyclone and was going to pass close to the Western side of Fiji. I was due to fly there around the same day it was passing. The call to put off my flight coincided on the same morning with a message from Hawaii that the Quiksilver Eddie Aikau Big Wave event was ‘GO’ so I re-scheduled my Fiji flight and jumped on a flight to Hawaii leaving the next day. Five days later I was home for one day and then (Tuesday 16th) I arrived in Fiji. It was good to be back. The water colour was crystal clear, the fish were biting and we had two days of super clean early season Cloudbreak before we got the news that TC Winston, who had been idling away quietly off Samoa was doing a U-turn, intensifying and heading back to Fiji as a Cat 3 Cyclone.
The guests were evacuated off Namotu Friday afternoon and most of the staff followed not long after. The guests due to arrive Saturday were told that unfortunately tropical cyclone Winston was taking over the island and they were unable to come onto the Island. The very last boat left Saturday leaving just 8 of us. The early projected tract had Winston passing below the Fiji mainland and we were feeling relatively safe as the island was readied with cyclone shutters going over the windows and anything that could be thrown about by the wind brought inside or securely tied down.
Approaching storm © Joliphotos.com
As Winston moved closer to Fiji his path, speed and strength kept changing by the hour. I’m not sure exactly when it became a Category 5 cyclone, it seemed to go from Cat 3 to Cat 5 super quick but I think sometime early Saturday was when it started being referred to as the “Strongest storm to ever hit Fiji”. I’d already made my decision to stay on the island and the last boat had left a long time ago so any second thoughts were out of my hands. I was feeling a mixture of nervous excitement and kept telling myself that I was in a safe place with our own power, water, food and a very well stocked bar because we took a fresh delivery Friday!
All through Saturday the winds continued to pick up out of the South. I have a ‘cloud fetish’ love shooting clouds and half expected to be out shooting as the storm approached and a Cat 5 certainly would have very interesting cloud formations but it was a very dark purple/black blanket of clouds and howling winds. The ocean was a complete mess with whitecaps to the horizon and all we could do was make a few last minute preparations, check the weather maps, watch the TV reports which just seemed to be on rotation. Late in the afternoon we got the news that it was going to pass right over the top of us!
We were holed up in the bar, six of us … along with the sea bird that flew in! We were as ready as we could be for a Cat 5 cyclone to hit us full on. Namotu Island is about 10 kms off the Fiji mainland. It’s 400m long x100m wide and 1.75 hectares depending on the sand formation at the time so just a dot in the middle of the ocean! With wind speeds that were going to be off the charts at over 300 kms an hour and 12 metre seas, I was actually starting to question my decision to stay on the island… to experience a cyclone!? By 9 pm the storm was full on! The buildings were being battered and the coconut palms were being blown through a 60 degree arc with coconuts coming down around us and vegetation and debris flying through the air. Torrential rain squalls were also blowing through. The 50 metre dash to my room through the storm was one of the scary moments of the night. My room is officially called the ‘Edit Room’ but I call it ‘The Bunker’ and figure it’s one of the safest rooms on the island. No windows, strong walls and tucked away against the inland side of main house. Once I was in there I wasn’t coming out till I knew it was safe and there was no noise.
Cyclone damage © Joliphotos.com
I’m figuring Winston hit us full on around 11pm. The wind and noise really ramped up around this time and sounded like a jet plane warming up for take off right outside my door and this noise level stayed until around 1am. Sometime during that time pieces of guttering and roof capping came off my roof. There was some crashing going on around me and I did take a peak outside only to see a piece of metal roofing doing circles around my deck. I valued my neck so definitely not the time to go venturing further outside! As the crashing continued I actually packed my cameras and computer into their waterproof bags and stashed them under my bed. If the roof came off quickly they weren't going to get too wet and I could grab them quickly and make a dash for somewhere safer. All six of us were staying in rooms less than 20 metres apart and we had two way radios to communicate because the internet and phone services were already down.
It was after 2 am when I started to calm down and probably started to doze. The noise level had dropped a few notches and Winston seemed to have passed or at least that’s what I was hoping. Around 5am I took a quick walk around outside my room. The wind was still howling and still driving rain but nothing like a few hours before. There were coconut palms with their tops completely off just outside my door but in the pre-dawn light that was all I could see. Around six it was light enough to check out the damage and remarkably the island had survived relatively OK. There was a lot of damage to the vegetation and trees but only minor damage to the buildings. Paint work had been sand blasted off the sides of some rooms, the main house had lost roof capping and gutters, (responsible for some of the noises I’d been hearing during the night) plus minor structural damage to other buildings.
The ABC News reported: “... At its strongest, the cyclone was generating wind gusts of up to 330 kilometres per hour with average wind speeds of 220 kilometres per hour.”
Severe cloud formations © Joliphotos.com
“There are whole villages that are just completely gone, there’s nothing but pieces of wood left of them, the island of Koro in particular, in the Lomaiviti group seems to be very, very badly hit," UN disaster response worker Danielle Parry said. Aerial footage of villages taken by the Royal New Zealand Air Force and posted on the Fijian government’s official website of the outlying islands showed whole villages flattened and flooded.
The Social Media hashtag that started appearing last Friday probably sums it up very well and is still very apt… #prayforfiji
Namotu Island is in clean-up mode right now which is going to take a few days and that crystal clear ocean is full of debris with massive tree logs washing up. At its peak TC Winston was a crazy crazy night of howling wind, driving rain and the most incredible noise, a night like I’ve never experienced before! The Vodka shots at the bar helped but it now feels very strange to sit here safe and reflect about the past 3 days, especially when news is coming in showing the absolute destruction that Winston caused across Fiji. We were lucky, certainly luckier than many others.
Check out Joliphotos' "Tropical Cyclone Winston Namotu Fiji 2016" images