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“Could it have been worse? Are we really prepared?” (The Fiji Times, 5 March 2016)


“Could it have been worse? Are we really prepared?” (The Fiji Times, 5 March 2016)

The unpleasant answer to the first question is:  “YES”: the destruction and deaths could have been far worse, had the actual return path through Fiji been south by just 70 kilometers.

The painful answer to the second question is “NOT REALLY”.

In fact, had Fiji been better prepared the number of deaths could have been much less, even with this most destructive Cyclone Winston,.

Fiji’s disaster preparedness programs is focused far more in dealing with the impact of cyclones after they have come. (disaster mitigation) rather than preparedness.

Fiji and the National Disaster Management Office (NDMO) needs to prepare  for cyclones before they come, especially since our climate scientists are predicting that the intensity of cyclones in the Pacific is increasing because of the impact of global warming.

For two reasons, it is also urgent that our NDMO properly publicizes in the print media and on their website, all their available information on the impact of a particular cyclone and the progress of their relief work:

(a) relief agencies and community groups should be able to see at a glance the scale and geographical distribution of the problem and where Government and donors are already responding, so that they can help better in filling the gaps; and

(b) to stop the socially destructive political bickering and complaining that goes on after every cyclone, about alleged biases in government relief, and about areas which are being deliberately left out.

It is also incredibly sad that at a time of such immense national suffering, there are companies who are fighting with media companies to get publicity for themselves giving their cyclone relief, rather than giving the relief aid.

It could have been worse

Cyclone Winston was a category 5 storm with wind gusts reaching 350 km/h, the strongest cyclone ever recorded to make landfall in the Southern Hemisphere.

Given the massive pain, the injuries, the deaths (43 currently), and the immense destruction to homes and crops that thousands of families have suffered from Cyclone Winston, it would be grossly insensitive to even suggest that we may have been “lucky” this time round.

But the path of Cyclone Winston suggests that had its path just been just 70 kilometers to the south during its destructive stages, we would be looking at hundreds or thousands of deaths, not 43.

Winston path

The cyclone started around 12th of February, then slowly came down west of Fiji, supposedly missing Fiji, then did a hook to the east of Fiji, with most of us breathing a sigh of relief.

But then it swung back again westwards, coming over Taveuni and Lomaiviti, then across Blight Waters (all without any great concentration of population), then hit Ra and northern Viti Levu where there were more people and houses.

After leaving Fiji to the west, it again changed directions to go south and south west, eventually reaching Queensland, whose surfers saw massive waves these last two weeks.

Had the return path of the energized Cyclone Winston gone over the Lami-Suva-Nausori corridor where some 300,000 people live, many in tin shacks, the death toll from Winston could have been in the hundreds or thousands, and the destruction of homes far greater.

Can our expert weathermen tell us more?

The many websites explaining Winston

There are many websites trying to explain (with some disagreement) why Cyclone Winston was the strongest cyclone ever to make landfall in the southern hemisphere, very similar to the destructive Cyclone Pam hitting Vanuatu last year.

Apparently, there is an intensification of the phenomenon El Nino which may lead to more cyclones forming in the NW Pacific, moving east and having plenty of room to intensify before they hit land masses such as Vanuatu and Fiji.

Readers may visit these stories on the internet:

There is a extremely interesting interactive Australian Government site which gives all the cyclone tracks in the Southern Hemisphere (including the Fiji waters) from 1969 to 2010 (see map below which gives the cyclones coming close to Fiji): you can select the year and the region, and the cyclone itself, to get more information. This is a website which all Pacific Island countries should follow and perhaps request the Australian Government to bring it up to date.

Map of all cyclone tracks

Why was Winston deceptive?.

Here is an interesting story (written for Queensland surfers), about the deceptiveness of Cyclone Winston which did three loops:

Professor Ian Goodwin (of University of Melbourne) explains that initially, Cyclone Winston followed the usual pattern, coming from the north west of Fiji and going south (where it also picked up energy also from the subtropics) but a high pressure system near New Zealand pushed Winston east of Fiji.

There, it encountered strong easterlies (possibly associated with the phenomenon La Nina developing), and was pushed back west again, over Taveuni, Lomaiviti, and the Blight Waters (all relatively underpopulated) and northern Viti Levu including Ra (bit more population).

It eventually looped south and south west towards Queensland, to thrill its surfers with large swells for more than two weeks.

Cyclone Wally (1978/1979) did a similar deceptive loop around Fiji.

Consensus amongst scientists

Whatever the many theoretical disagreements between meteorologists (focused on atmospheric changes) and oceanographers (focused on oceanic changes), there is consensus that

(and please read carefully as on the surface, it may seem contradictory)

* while the total number of cyclones (weak and powerful) will probably decrease thereby lulling our people into complacency (were our people even thinking about cyclones before Winston came along?)

* the number of powerful cyclones will probably increase

* the intensity or the strength or the wind speeds, of the powerful cyclones will also probably increase by being able to draw on more energy from the ocean surface because of global warming.

* flood damage through storm surges will probably be more severe if the base ocean level is higher (because of global warming), and especially during high tides.

There is little doubt that Fiji needs to prepare to be safe from more powerful cyclones like Winston, but are we really prepared, if people’s reactions to Cyclone Winston is anything to go by.

Every household should do the survey below (showed in red letters), poor and rich alike.

The unsafe houses of the rich

Many rich people with architect designed houses may be lulled into a false sense of confidence, about their cyclone preparedness.

But architects are asked to make houses which are “pretty”, not “hurricane proof” or “hurricane safe”.

Specifically, many wealthy homes have floor-to-ceiling glass sliding doors with massive surface areas for the great views outside.

At the height of a previous hurricane hitting my family home in Toorak, the glass was bending in an unbelievable six inches and had it smashed in, there would have been thousands of glass shards hitting the occupants like bullets,

The only safe space in our four bedroom house was an internal corridor between the rooms and the living room.

Survey for all households

  1. Is my house designed to withstand strong hurricanes like Winston, and what do I need to do to make it safer?
  1. Which is the “safest room” in my house (away from vulnerable windows)?
  1. Given the many concrete houses which collapsed, was there enough reinforcing steel used in the walls of your house when it was originally constructed?
  1. Where is the nearest “really safe house” for my family or village which can be reached quickly, while it is still safe to go outside?
  1. Does my house have a hurricane kit already prepared to carry to the safe house (containing basic food, water, first aid, toilet paper, light, battery powered radio)?
  1. Is the NDMO identifying and strengthening “really safe houses for all villages, rural and urban communities with vulnerable houses? Are tunnels in hillsides one possibility, as in World War II? Is this a medium to long-term project that donors ought to take up as a priority?
  1. Should the NDMO begin a long term project encouraging some private construction companies to provide hurricane-proofing services for houses already built?


How reduce the political bickering?

After every cyclone (and Winston is no exception) there are allegations by political parties that governments are only helping their client groups, and ignoring others.

There are always complaints from some suffering families and groups, nearly always amplified by the media, that they have been missed out in the delivery of rations.

Of course, some of these complaints may well be justified, but that is surely to be expected.

But rarely do the public acknowledge (nor are they in a position to do so) the full extent to which the cyclone relief work is quietly being delivered, without any fanfare, by hundreds of civil servants, NGOs, rehabilitation agencies and community groups, especially because it is done out of sight of the media who find it easy to just follow certain ministers around the country.

I suggest that the NDMO is in a good position to discourage this senseless political bickering and inaccurate media image by using the population experts from the Fiji Bureau of Statistics to publish a comprehensive table in each of the two daily newspapers, listing in columns

(a) the areas and communities affected

(b) the numbers of base people in those communities

(c) the numbers of houses totally destroyed and the numbers of people associated

(d) the numbers of severely damaged houses and the numbers of associated people

(e) how many of them have been reached by the NDMO and other relief agencies.

This table should be updated on a daily basis, so that donors, relief agencies and communities can also see the progress being made, where progress is not being made and where more efforts need to be made.

The media should also be requested not to blow individual stories out of all proportion, which could give the impression that relief work is largely failing, when the reality may be otherwise.

It is also important for the local private sector and some companies, to stop the enormous pressure they are putting on media companies, to maximize the publicity around them giving the aid.

International publicity a double-edged sword

It is natural for governments globally to publicize the extent to which a country has been devastated by a natural disaster (as done by Peter Thompson at the UN), as it can lead to large amounts of foreign aid pouring in.

International humanitarian agencies also have an incentive to maximize publicity in developed countries, about a disaster in poor countries, as it usually results in a spike in their own funding from the concerned public.

Of course, some governments may even exaggerate, as down the line, can also be a good excuse for government to explain poor economic growth under their management.

Of course, some canny industry leaders, struggling with inherent inefficiency, may speedily announce, without any real survey, that a great natural disaster has befallen their industry (hence please, their poor performance is not their fault).

These exaggerations are easily possible when comprehensive data of the kind I have suggested in the previous section is not available to the public, local and international.

But note the double-edged sword for economies like Fiji, which is dependent on tourism.

Even if most of the tourist areas may not have been particularly affected (as fortunately with Cyclone Winston) , excessive international publicity about “Fiji being devastated” by a cyclone, such as through appeals to the United Nations going around the world, can lead to tourists cancelling, or new tourists not wanting to come to a devastated country.

Such international appeals may not even result in any great increase in funding, given that the bulk of the cyclone relief for Fiji will come from our traditional donors like Australia, NZ, EU, Japan, and now also China.

Desperate belated pleas by the tourism industry to counter the negative effects of the publicity may not be effective in the short run, especially if alternative holidays are easily available at our tourism sources.

Once holidays are cancelled, it can be difficult to restore the tourism arrivals to previous levels, as we have seen from previous natural and man-made disasters like coups.

Unfocused publicity can do lasting damage to our tourism industry, and reduce jobs, incomes, and government revenues as well.

On this issue, there would seem to be an urgent need for dialogue between government, the NDMO, humanitarian organizations and the media, to ensure that international publicity does not impact negatively on the tourism industry.

Unfortunately, there is no easy answer on the right balance to strike between enough publicity to ensure adequate  external assistance and not too much as to damage our important tourism industry.

Perhaps the tourism industry can advise on this problem which is never going to go away, for Fiji.



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