Cyclone Winston Response, Fiji: Learning from history to predict and respond to devastating climactic events.


Cyclone Winston

Cyclone Winston is reported to be the strongest storm system ever recorded in the southern hemisphere, and the devastation it caused to Fiji is substantial.

At this time, Direct Relief is coordinating its response with partners, gathering information, sending emergency medicines and medical supplies, and doing everything possible to be in a position to assist local health teams and health facilities as fast and efficiently as possible.

During the period when a cyclone or hurricane is impacting the affected country, there is limited information. Curfews are in place, and everyone — from residents of rural villages to heads of state — has sought shelter and safety in order from the storm. It is during this period when we can only watch and wait that we can draw on historical precedence and experience to predict how the situation may play out.

History tells us that the majority of hurricanes and cyclones do not lead to large-scale loss of life but they nearly always cause widespread damage to infrastructure and crops. Even in disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and Typhoon Haiyan, which caused a substantial loss of life and injury, there were secondary factors. In the case of Katrina, the exacerbating factor was the collapse of the levees that protected the Lower Ninth Ward. In Typhoon Haiyan, the secondary factor was the funnelling effect of the Leyte Gulf that channelled the energy of the storm surge directly into the city of Tacloban.

There are, of course, other factors that can modify a community’s resilience and, therefore, its risk from natural climactic events. These include geography, population density, population health, building standards, socioeconomic status, and the relative effectiveness of early warning and evacuation system and centres.

Direct Relief recently responded after Cyclone Pam devastated Vanuatu. We are now able to learn from this and apply our experience to the current situation in Fiji, keeping in mind that there is always the potential for some unforeseen secondary multiplying factor that transforms a weather emergency into a massive natural disaster.

The response after Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu is illustrative of a typical hurricane disaster event, and it allows us to make some generalisations. Often, during a hurricane or cyclone event, it is not until the morning of the day after the storm that reports start filtering in about the extent of the damage.

This information comes in fairly predictable stages. Cyclones and hurricanes often cut power and communications lines. Debris such as fallen trees and power poles can block roads and stall initial disaster assessments and the movement of emergency services. Reliable reporting on the extent of damage often comes from the capital and major centres first. This initial information is followed by a lag and concern regarding the situation in remote rural areas and outer islands. Sometimes, even though there may not be a wide-scale impact, difficulty accessing these areas and a lack of lines of communication means that the situation may not be known for days. Once these areas have been assessed, then a fuller picture of the natural disaster can be assembled and the government and NGO responders alike can act accordingly.

In the case of Vanuatu, though the cyclone had devastated large areas of the country, it took some days to confirm that that the loss of life was less than anticipated. In Vanuatu, after the initial emergency phase, there was a need for medicines and supplies to treat medical issues related to a lack of access to food and water, people living in proximity to evacuation centres and without shelter in villages, MCH issues, and issues related to injuries and skin infection caused by environmental factors such as debris on the ground.

So we can infer from historical precedent that if a hurricane doesn’t trigger some secondary multiplying factor, then the probability is that there will be widespread damage to infrastructure and crops but not a huge loss of life.

Armed with this knowledge and experience, we can start predicting and preparing even while we watch and wait for reports to come in from the effect of cyclone Winston in Fiji.

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