We are stronger than Winston

Cyclone Winston was the first ever Category 5 cyclone to hit Fiji. Despite a tiny presence on the island, Oxfam was able to scale up and respond, as Lara McKinley reports 

In the aftermath of Cyclone Winston, Oxfam’s Fiji Country Director Dolores Devesi visited Nasiriti, a village nestled in the highlands.

“I felt I was in a completely different place,” she says. “All the houses were gone. The trees were stumps, no leaves, no bark, twisted on the top. Everything was left bare. It was an eerie feeling. I thought, ’Were the people still alive?’”

Dolores has worked for Oxfam in the Pacific for 15 years but has never had to coordinate a response on this scale.

Our Fiji program was modest — we worked through local partners, rather than directly with communities — and Cyclone Winston was the worst storm on record.

Initially predicted to be a category 3 cyclone, it soon turned into a monster. Winds reached more than 325km/h. Villages in its path, including Nasiriti, were flattened. More than 150,000 people were left homeless. Schools were destroyed and water systems damaged. Forty-three people lost their lives.|

Dolores says she went into Nasiriti preparing for the worst and she was right. The community hall was the only thing left standing.

“Then all the people came out and they shook hands. Women were crying and just wanted to say thank you … This was a true humanitarian crisis. We had no choice but to respond.”
Oxfam immediately dispatched a rapid response team from Melbourne.

Humanitarian response coordinator Jennifer Worthington said she knew we couldn’t do the work on our own.

“People didn’t know us, they knew our partners," Jennifer says. "[Our partners] had the best links into the communities. They knew where to go, who to work with.”

Jennifer says a key part of Oxfam’s role was to help with coordination — not only with our partners, but with agencies and the government. “We wanted to only work where we could add value. Prioritising is critical. Collaborating is critical. Without coordination, everyone can waste effort and time.

“And in a response like this, speed is everything. This is life-saving stuff.” With the help of our supporters Oxfam has helped nearly 9,000 people in 73 communities, providing life-saving hygiene kits, training and safe drinking water in the months following the cyclone.

For Dolores, our local partners and the local leaders in villages like Nasiriti are the real heroes.

“Without them, we wouldn’t have been able to do much," she says. "All over Fiji, people say to me, ’We are stronger than Winston’. And I really believe that. People are building back better. Communities will be better prepared for another big disaster."
Photos: Alfredo Prado