Fiji still overwhelmed by Cyclone Winston's toll

Mar 07, 2016, 2:09 PM EST
Destroyed houses in Fiji after Cyclone Winston.
Source: Tu Nexo De/flickr

Fiji is still reeling from Cyclone Winston, the most devastating tropical cyclone ever recorded in the Southern Hemisphere, which struck on February 20. 43 people died, and 40% of the population (350,000 people) was affected, with widespread devastation and displacement. On Monday, local media reported that over 51,000 applications had been received by the Fiji National Provident Fund (FNPF) for Cyclone Winston Natural Disaster assistance. The majority of these are for a one-time payment of $1,000 -- the maximum currently available.

Winston will be far and away the costliest and most damaging natural disaster to ever hit the developing country. Jaoji Koroi, FNPF ‘s COO, confirmed that about $4 million will be paid to members’ accounts by Monday afternoon. And the government is expecting a similar number of applicants over the next two weeks. For reference, the Fund received 8,164 applications for assistance following Cyclone Evan in 2014, and it paid out $7.4 million. And for the 12 months preceding June 2015, FNPF received a total of 65,000 applications.   

Even if the government could pay every affected person $1,000 in a timely manner (a very dubious prospect), it wouldn’t be enough to rebuild their shattered lives. Some 54,000 people remain sheltered in 960 evacuation centers, which are in dire need of funding. According to the U.N.,

While comprehensive data on the damage is still being collected, initial estimates indicate varying levels of destruction, with up to 100 per cent of buildings destroyed on some islands. Hundreds of schools have been damaged or destroyed, health facilities have been severely damaged and the agricultural sector faces a total loss of some $56 million.

Many of the worst-hit areas were already suffering from drought as a result of el Nino, making the impact of Winston even more devastating.

But the international community is starting to step up. The U.N. has begun an airlift of emergency supplies to 75,000 people, and New Zealand has sent 500 military specialists to distribute aid and rebuild damaged infrastructure. Furthermore, on Friday the U.N. and Fiji launched an appeal for $38.6 million in critical emergency relief. International donors had already given $22 million in donations and technical assistance, and provided $9 million in cash. The U.N. has also released $8 million from its emergency response fund to Fiji.

However, this is all a drop in the bucket compared to what the Fijian government estimates the total cost of Winston will be: over $500 million. The recovery will take years, but in light of climate change chances are that more cyclones will hit before Fiji can get back to its pre-Winston development levels. A stark warning for the world to get serious about reducing CO2 emissions and helping vulnerable nations cope.