#IDDR2016: Fiji’s honest appraisal of Cyclone Winston

By Denis McCleanGENEVA, 10 October 2016 - There were fears of very large loss of life when Fiji was hit in February this year by the first category 5 cyclone in its recorded history, and the strongest ever seen in the southern hemisphere. Cyclone Winston brought wind speeds which would have lifted an airplane, averaging 220 kilometres per hour and gusts of 315 kilometres per hour when it made landfall on the archipelago’s most populous island, Viti Levu, posing an unprecedented threat to the capital, Suva. Winston’s strength sparked comparisons with 2013’s Typhoon Haiyan which claimed over 6,000 lives in the Philippines or the Labor Day hurricane which hit the US Florida Keys in 1935 killing 400 people. Early warnings distributed through national and social media, and close collaboration between Fiji Meteorological Services (FMS), the private weather forecaster NaDraki, the National Disaster Management Office and other actors, prevented the death toll from rising above 44 even though 540,000 people were affected. The death toll was still too high and a thorough analysis was produced earlier this year by the Government of Fiji in the course of carrying out a Post-Disaster Needs Assessment (PDNA) with the participation of UNISDR and others. Fiji’s Minister for National Disaster Management, Mr. Inia Seruiratu, said: “Fiji has made much progress in recent years in reducing disaster risk but Cyclone Winston was a new experience for us. It is likely the new normal if climate change continues to bring us more and more severe weather events. We hope that our experience and analysis of this disaster will help others facing similar scenarios particularly small island states. Reducing mortality from disasters is the most important part of our work.” The PDNA recognised that Fiji’s limited experience with such intense tropical cyclones meant that “public understanding of the characteristics of a Category 5 system and its associated risks was a huge challenge. A number of coastal communities expected strong winds, but were unprepared for the intensity of the storm surge, which contributed to the high level of devastation of evacuation centres and housing in coastal areas.” One clear positive was that the build back better strategy adopted after Cyclone Evan in 2012 proved its worth,  All the houses built as a result, stood up to Cyclone Winston. FMS which has been a WMO recognised regional centre since 1995,  kept the population alert to the cyclone’s progress as it took an erratic path through the Pacific before making landfall on February 20. FMS continued to work closely with the National Disaster Management Office despite some damage to its facilities following Winston’s landfall. It is estimated that Winston affected 540,400 people, including 263,000 women. The total represents 62% of Fiji’s population of 865,000. A thorough post-disaster needs assessment published earlier this year points the way forward for how the country can continue to reduce disaster risk and save lives. Cyclone Winston’s 44 deaths were evenly divided between male and female. Two anomalies were noted in this statistic: 92% of the deaths were among the iTaukei which make up 57% of the population, and 37% were among those aged over 65 years though they only make up 4% of the population. One conclusion was that “more can be done to further disseminate early warnings to a wider audience, especially the vulnerable population. Television broadcasts could add sign language to the warnings, and text messages could be sent targeting the hearing impaired.” The post-disaster assessment also recognised that further work needs to be done to ensure that evacuation centres are accessible and safe for people with disabilities. The death toll among the elderly was put down to age-related mobility issues. A new study which will be published on this year’s International Day for Disaster Reduction, October 13, shows that severe weather events have doubled in the last 40 years and are a major cause of disaster mortality. Reducing disaster mortality is the theme of this year’s International Day for Disaster Reduction on October 13 and the first target of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. It is a key concern of small island states such as Fiji which are battling the impact of climate change, particularly as a result of warming and rising seas. Since 1980, disaster events in Fiji have resulted in average annual economic damage of around F$35 million and impacted around 40,000 people each year. In the same period, at least 186 people were killed by flooding and storm events alone.

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