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Cyclone leaves more questions than how to clean up

SUVA (SE): It may be the Year of the Jubilee of Mercy, but Father Johnny McEvoy says from Suva, Fiji, in the days following February 20 and 21, when Tropical Cyclone Winston devastated the tropical Pacific paradise of around 900,000 people, that the storm had no mercy on the tiny island nation.

“The nation is numb, shell shocked and overwhelmed, so are we,” the Columban priest says in a letter dated February 25, circulated after electricity returned to some parts of the capital, Suva.

“The situation has emotionally affected us all and, like the nation, we are somewhat paralysed, crying within and unable to get up and move into action,” he continued.

“It was a category five cyclone—never before experienced in Fiji and the strongest recorded winds in the southern hemisphere,” the Irish missionary explains.

Father McEvoy says that there were two great blessings that even in their numbed state the people can give thanks for. “The cyclone passed us by about 10 days previously, but did a U-turn, gathering speed and momentum all the time. So basically we had good warning.”

But when it did return, it came with average wind speeds of 287 kilometres per hour and packing 325 kilometres per hour wind gusts. 

The only mercy it showed was that it came in the daytime, which Father McEvoy says helped to keep the death toll down to 10 (although it has since risen to 44).

He added that had the winds come at night, when visibility in Fiji is almost at zero point, he fears that the death toll would have been much higher.

The warning period also gave people living in low lying villages near the shore time to head for higher ground, as well as affording the government time to make preparations.

A curfew was imposed prior to the winds hitting, but many people left it to the last minute to secure their homes and with the ferocity of the cyclone way higher than anyone had ever experienced before, much of this preparation was sadly inadequate.

However, the curfew did save many from electrocution, as live power lines were strewn far and wide across the countryside, and many were saved from the danger of the falling stanchions that hold them secure on calmer days.

Fiji is comprised of 300 islands, around 100 of which are inhabited, but when the cyclone returned it cut a swath directly between the two main islands of Viti Levu and Vanua Levu, destroying everything in its path.

Father McEvoy says that homes and livelihoods by the thousands were destroyed in a matter of minutes, cutting people off from utilities, medical services and telecommunications, which in today’s climate of instant contact with the outside world, is difficult for people to comprehend.

The situation was further aggravated, as in the almost totally Christian Fiji, churches and schools, which normally become the evacuation centres in times of crisis, suffered extensive damage.

In a call for prayer and assistance for the suffering people of Fiji, the Global Catholic Climate Movement said that the nation was set to join the Global Fast for Climate Justice on March 5.

However, while people will still join in, it is certain that some will be fasting for many more days than just the one scheduled on the Lenten calendar.

The movement also called for people in other countries to fast on the date set for Fiji and observe it in addition to the one set for their own countries. Each day of Lent has been assigned to a particular country and people are invited to join the fast on that day.

Hong Kong will join South Korea in the fast on March 7 and pray for the renewal of our relationship with creation and with our brothers and sisters who live in poverty and are already suffering the impact of climate change on their lives.

That call for prayer has been extended now to especially include the people of Fiji, whom Father McEvoy says must now begin the task of rebuilding whole villages and island infrastructure, although today, many have nothing but the shirt on their backs.

Peruvian Father Nilton Chero said from his parish in Ba, one of the hardest hit areas, “I am not able to give anything at the moment, but I want to invite you to come and give thanks to the Lord for saving our lives from this terrible storm.”

However, Father McEvoy says that the quick response of the international community has been a sign of hope to the beleaguered people. 

Australia and New Zealand put their hands up first, sending survival kits and much needed helicopters and aircraft, as well as medical supplies.

Japan and India were quick to volunteer help and the United States of America, China and Britain have also joined the relief effort.

He says that the St. Vincent de Paul Society swung into action within hours of the storm dying down and the Red Cross has been acting as a conduit in the organisation of the distribution of the aid.

But the biggest ever cyclone to hit the southern hemisphere leaves serious question in its path as well, as Pope Francis has pointed out, “Large-scale natural disasters… cannot be analysed or explained in isolation.”

The pope goes on to say, “I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.”


It is a reminder of our role in seeking reconciliation with nature.

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