By Akuila Cakacaka
Four months after the devastating impact of tropical Cyclone Winston, I visited the villages of Nakodu and Tuatua on Koro island and Natokalau village on Ovalau island to understand how the people have coped with the effects and aftermath of the storm. These villages were some of my research sites in Fiji in which I conducted household surveys in 2014 looking at their vulnerability to changes in marine resource availability and climate-related factors.
Following a ten hour overnight journey to Koro island onboard a passenger ferry, the boat berthed at Koro jetty at 5am. As I drove from the jetty to the village, tears filled my eyes as I stared at the destruction left by the cyclone. Even after four months, the devastation was still evident, with coconut trees growing with no fruits, and trees along the coasts and up on the mountains having been completely ruined. What used to be a thick forest has now been shredded into shrubs.
I was surprised when I arrived at the villages of Nakodu and Tuatua to realize that the village setting has changed. What used to be a village with good concrete, wooden and tin houses has been left with small shack houses built from timber and tin in which families could gather after the cyclone. While conducting interviews inside their temporary homes, my head was actually touching the roof. Some were fortunate to be given tarpaulins and tents through assistance from different organizations and the government. Villagers told me that the cyclone blew away the roofs of their house, but the tidal waves that came during the height of the cyclone caused the most damage to their houses. This was the first time that the two villages have experienced a tidal wave and I was informed that there was no prior warning of such an event by the media.
All of the farms and crops from both villages were destroyed and people have just started farming again in late May and June. This was for a couple of reasons: 1) the access to their farms were obstructed by trees that fell during the cyclone; 2) crops that were planted just after the hurricane did not grow well and taro plants were eaten by caterpillars; 3) there were and still are not enough seedlings for taro, cassava and yaqona; 4) some are still recovering due to the financial loss from their farms. A farmer that I interviewed told me that he had lost 12,000 three year old plants of yaqona with an estimated market price of $40USD a plant. The main income sources for these villages include taro, yaqona, yams, voivoi (pandanus leaves for making mats) and coconuts, which have all been ruined. The villages are relying on wild root crops and food rations provided by the government for food, and more households are now engaged in fishing compared to the past. More time and help is needed for these two villages to rebuild their lives again.
Natokalau village in Ovalau was in a better state compared to the two villages in Koro. Although they were hit by the cyclone and the tidal wave, the destruction was not as bad as in Koro. Some houses in Natokalau were completely damaged, but most houses withstood the strong winds and the tidal wave was not as high as in Koro. Some of the crops and farms survived the cyclone and therefore some households are still able to harvest crops from farms. The village also received food rations and other assistance from the government and other organizations. Most households in Natokalau have fully recovered from the cyclone in repairing their houses as most people are being employed by the Pacific Fishing Company (PAFCO) which is based in Ovalau.
The Government of Fiji has provided $7000FJD worth of housing materials to families whose houses have been completely damaged, and assistance was also given to houses that were partly damaged after a thorough assessment. Food rations given to the villages of Nakodu and Tuatua should continue for the rest of this year as their crops (dalo, cassava and yams) which have recently been planted will take at least seven to eight months to harvest.
Monetary donations from the staff of ZMT which had been collected in the weeks before I left on this trip were presented to the village chiefs of each village in the presence of the village members. This was well received by the chiefs and it was timely to help in their rebuilding process. They are looking forward to receiving the results of this study within the next couple of months.