Fiji, November 7, 2017 - In the early evening of February 20th, 2016, Fijian government officials called a nation-wide curfew as a cyclone moved west towards the centre of the country. Yet Rupeni Vatugata, a 74-year old father of four, says he and his wife didn’t notice any of the usual natural signs of an oncoming cyclone.
“In the morning, we didn't know there would be a cyclone. We came from Suva just to check on our house. By the afternoon when winds started, and the disaster office officials came into our village to say the cyclone will come today, and that everyone was to go down to the village hall.
“After that, I said for my wife and I to pray, prepare, and then we went down. When we were [in the hall], I never thought that my house would be damaged; I had faith in my prayers.”
Having lived through 1972’s Tropical Cyclone Bebe, which killed 28 people, Rupeni thought he knew what was coming. But nothing could have prepared him for Winston, which would become the largest storm ever recorded in the Southern Hemisphere.
Across Fiji, Winston’s wrath was unprecedented. 44 people were killed and countless others were injured. An estimated 40,000 homes were severely damaged or destroyed, including many in Rupeni’s village of Namarai, in Ra Province, on the northern coast of Viti Levu, Fiji’s biggest and main island.
“It was scary. The first winds blew from the south,” says Rupeni, reflecting on Winston’s fury. “All the children and their families were in the village hall during that time [and] you could only see when you looked outside – it was like a fog – I couldn't see a single rain drop. That was the strength of the wind; it evaporated the raindrops.
“We saw that houses were being blown away together with [their] stilts. The roofs flew away, together with the posts. Only the soil was left. I’m not sure which part of the world they were blown to. In this village, only six houses remained and about thirty houses were blown away.”
Fortunately, no lives were lost in Rupeni’s village, however the damage left in Winston’s wake was more than physical.
“People were scared and sad because of [what had happened to] their belongings. There were no pots, no plates, no cups, no beds. …In three hours, all of people’s belongings [had] disappeared; items they treasured.