CYCLONE WINSTON - in North East of OVALAU, Fiji.
Saturday Feb 20, 2016
I had intended to have a break from Lomeri from Feb 1 – 9. Fernando Lobendahn’s death caused me to postpone my “holiday” to Feb 15 -23.
Feb 15 I set out by bus from Suva to catch the boat at Natovi for a one hour sea journey to the island. When we were about to board it was announced that the Marine Department had cancelled the sailing for that night. Two busloads of intending passengers returned to Suva on the same buses. I went up to nearby Natovi Mission, where I was welcomed for the night.
Next afternoon we had a calm trip to Ovalau on a flat sea and I arrived after another bus trip to Levuka, and a taxi to the Renewal Centre of the Sisters of Our Lady of Nazareth at Nasuku which is a 15 minute walk to Cawaci known to many Brothers. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday were most enjoyable days with good weather.
Early on Sat Feb 20, it was raining constantly with a steady, but not very strong wind. We did not walk to Cawaci for early morning Mass. The staff of St John’s College at Cawaci were at the Centre for a Staff Conference. The Principal of St John’s had his laptop and showed me a satellite picture of the cyclone. The picture was taken when the cyclone was still some distance from where we were. The teachers walked back to Cawaci for lunch.
The wind and rain steadily grew stronger almost without being noticed. Around 3pm conditions were definitely stormy and I was still in my room. I looked across the quadrangle to see a few sitting outside the dining room and I felt I should be with them. On my way to the other side I saw a sheet of corrugated iron flying from an accommodation block on the opposite side. The only ones present at the Centre at that time were two Sisters, two visiting women, two visiting men and myself. I sat next to a woman and we were anticipating a big blow. The gusts were getting stronger and the rain was almost horizontal. Suddenly the woman yelled, “Quick, get into a room. The roof above us is going to come down.”
Yes we moved!
The noise of the big gusts and the crashing of the roof and walls of that part of the building, made one quite frightened and the necessity to stay together. This was the beginning of a lot of roofing and supporting rafters being loosened and blown in huge gusts. The Sisters, the women, and myself were huddled together in the bathroom with shower and toilet cubicles. The roof had gone and the ceiling was working itself loose to come down, but we knew it would not come on top us because of the cubicles. I’m not sure how long we were there – it seemed more than an hour or more – we were absolutely drenched to the skin but with the noise of wind and destruction we were praying fervently.
Sister Aliti (wise woman) said that we had to get away before it got dark. When the strong gusts seemed to have decreased we managed with some difficulty to get away from the building and set off to try and get to the top of a ridge where there was an old now disused Church building and another building which had formerly been a Sisters’ Convent.
In normal times it would have taken less than five minutes for a fit person to reach the buildings. This time it was an obstacle course with fallen trees and branches as well as a very slippery slope. Sister Udite, who had a bad leg was “piggy backed” by a man. We eventually reached the top and went into a small room off the Church where there were local people, who, on seeing our drenched state, got us dry clothes, which was very comforting. The only food they had to share was boiled breadfruit. People already there were very good to us, for without them we would have stayed all night in sodden clothes with no hope of getting dry.
Even though it was pleasant to be dry, it was a long night on a woven mat on a makeshift bed. Mosquitoes were having a feast. What a relief to see daylight. I was escorted down to the Centre and went back to my room to rescue my bag, which was OK. Sister Aliti was cooking a pot full of “doughnut – like” balls fried in oil. She hadn’t slept a wink and already was at work and she didn’t stop.
From the beginning of Cyclone Winston, there was no electricity and no water in the taps. There was a good pool in a stream for washing clothes and having a bath. Eventually the sun came out on Sunday and time to get mats curtains, sofas soft chairs and everything dried out. Sister was in the stream most of the day washing what needed to be washed.
St John’s College also has damaged buildings.
There was no possibility of communication with Suva. The two men walked to the town of Levuka on Monday and when they came back they told me I would probably have to wait another week for a boat. However, at 11.00pm Monday night I was awakened and told to get ready and go with the men to Levuka and get on the boat that was to leave at 7.00am. I thought that we would have to walk but the Ute parked outside our building negotiated fallen power lines, big washouts on the road as well as fallen trees.
I felt very sorry for the two Sisters left behind in the severely damaged buildings. When I got to Suva I rang the administration of the Sisters, who as well as Media and Government, still knew nothing about Ovalau.
The Town of Levuka was the 1st Capital of Fiji. It still has “cowboy” style shops but not as much damage there as I had expected. The single storey wooden Presbytery was undamaged as was the two story wooden school and Convent of the Marist Sisters.
Br Sam Eathorne.
Lomeri, 24 Feb 2016.