Cyclone Winston Devastates Fiji

Island nation reeling in the aftermath of the "strongest storm to ever hit" its shores

Tragedy continues to hit Fiji, where the measurements of damage caused by Tropical Cyclone Winston grow grimmer every hour. Photo: Joli
Tragedy continues to hit Fiji, where the measurements of damage caused by Tropical Cyclone Winston grow grimmer every hour. Photo: Joli

At least 21 people were killed and more than 8,000 were driven into shelters after Tropical Cyclone Winston struck Fiji on Saturday, with officials predicting an increased death toll once safety teams reach the outlying islands, authorities report.

After wind gusts of up to 205 mph decked regions of the archipelago, the small island nation declared a state of disaster, and widespread flooding and continued winds could stymie significant recovery efforts for up to a month. Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama said in a televised national address on Sunday that the storm still strands much of the population without adequate power and fresh water.

“The damage has been widespread, homes have been destroyed, many low-lying areas have flooded, and many people have been left stunned and confused about what to do,” he said.

Accounts of the devastation are severe. The winds lifted entire houses from their foundations in Kausori and Korovou. Flying debris scattered trees and powerlines among roads, making transportation between relief stations difficult. Travel via oceanways remains just as trying — both the Savusavu and the Nabouwalu wharves buckled under the waves’ repeated blows, sending wooden beams and entire sections of the zone into the water. The wharves are now closed and could take months to repair. Aerial footage taken by the Royal New Zealand Air Force showed entire villages destroyed in the storm’s wake.

SURFER Senior Photographer Peter “Joli” Wilson returned to Fiji on Tuesday, February 16th, five days after leaving for The Eddie, and the conditions were textbook paradise, featuring clear Pacific waters and clean early-season Cloudbreak. Two days later though, when Winston backpedaled from Samoa and arched back to Fiji in the form of a Category 3 cyclone, early signs indicated that the forecast would turn into more than a tropical drizzle. This was his eyewitness report:

The guests were evacuated off Namotu Friday afternoon, and most of the staff followed not long after. The guests due to arrive Saturday were told that, unfortunately, Tropical Cyclone Winston was taking over the island, and they were unable to come onto the island. The early projected tract had Winston passing below the Fiji mainland, and we were feeling relatively safe as the island was readied with cyclone shutters going over the windows, and anything that could be thrown about by the wind was brought inside or securely tied down.

All through Saturday, the winds continued to pick up out of the South…The ocean was a complete mess with whitecaps to the horizon and all we could do was make a few last-minute preparations, check the weather maps, and watch the TV reports, which just seemed to be on rotation. Late in the afternoon, we got the news that it was going to pass right over the top of us.

I’m figuring Winston hit us full around 11:00 PM. The wind and noise really ramped up around this time and sounded like a jet plane warming up for takeoff right outside my door, and this noise level stayed until around 1:00 AM. Sometime during that time, pieces of guttering and roof capping came off my roof. There was some crashing going on around me, and I did take a peek outside only to see a piece of metal roofing doing circles around my deck…As the crashing continued, I actually packed my cameras and computer into their waterproof bags and stashed them under my bed; if the roof came off quickly, they weren’t going to get too wet, and I could grab them quickly and make a dash for somewhere safer. All six of us were staying in rooms less than 20 meters apart, and we had two way radios to communicate because the internet and phone services were already down.

Namotu Island is in clean-up mode right now, which is going to take a few days, and that crystal-clear ocean is full of debris with massive tree logs washing up. At its peak, Winston was a crazy, crazy night of howling wind, driving rain and the most incredible noise, a night like I’ve never experienced before…It now feels very strange to sit here safe and reflect about the past three days, especially when news is coming in, showing the absolute destruction that Winston caused across Fiji. We were lucky, certainly luckier than many others.

A shot of the wreckage. The belongings of local residents were no match for the storm's intense winds and flooding. Photo: Joli
A shot of the wreckage. The belongings of local residents were no match for the storm’s intense winds and flooding. Photo: Joli