FIRST responders tending to thousands of displaced Fijians in the aftermath of Cyclone Yasa are focusing their efforts on bringing long-term healing to victims of natural disaster trauma.
Caritas Fiji executive director Agatha Ferei said the Catholic Church’s response to Cyclone Yasa’s devastation, which has left four people including a three-month old boy dead, included offering victims spaces “to just talk”.
“Caritas Fiji’s immediate response was to assess the situations that are out there, respond to the communities that we were able to get notification to right away, but also to provide psychosocial support which we felt was something that was important and often overlooked by a lot of our humanitarian work,” Ms Ferei said.
“People that are victims of these disasters, they need a space to share their feelings, to bring their emotions out, at the same time to retell their stories as it happened.
“And for many of us going in, we need to be prepared to just listen and hear them out and provide this space for them.”
Ms Ferei said Fiji was still reeling from the largest cyclone to hit the island nation, Cyclone Winston, which wiped out entire villages and displaced more than 340,000 people including hundreds and thousands of children.
The Pacific island nation was also hit by Cyclone Harold in April, the first category five cyclone in 2020, causing widespread destruction in Fiji, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Tonga.
Ms Ferei said the lessons from these two tragic events included the importance of treating people’s mental and emotional wellbeing in the aftermath of a natural disaster.
“Because if we don’t do this, we are just filling in the physical needs (but) in the long-term they will never get healed over these situations,” Ms Ferei said.
“The trauma is big and it’s real for them.
“And when you provide the spaces and you listen to the stories, you can almost feel the pain.
“They need the process of healing, and that’s something that our team, and the Church, realises needs to be part of what we do as our first response in the community.”
Ms Ferei said Caritas Fiji’s emergency response efforts were now focused on supporting victims in Venua Levu, a four-hour boat ride from Suva, the country’s capital.
Early reports about Cyclone Yasa warned that it could make landfall on Suva, affecting the city’s estimated population of 94,000 people.
Ms Ferei said Caritas Fiji was at the centre of a city-wide cyclone prevention plan that first prioritised the safety of its homeless.
“Most of our members in this category often want to just stay in the streets,” Ms Ferei said.
“They didn’t realise there are people concerned for their safety.
“They came to Caritas Fiji and we were able to get them accommodation for them to stay in when the cyclone is up.”
Evacuation centres began opening up across the island nation in preparation for an oncoming disaster.
“But unfortunately when the cyclone struck, it struck certain pocket areas or communities, like in this case Vanua Levu, and the damages were devastating,” Ms Ferei said.
The storm slammed into the north island of Vanua Levu with wind speeds of up to 240km per hour, and wind gusts of up to 345km per hour, making it the second strongest cyclone to hit the Pacific in recorded history.
“Some home are completely destroyed,” Ms Ferei said.
“You go in one particularly community, and fifty per cent of the homes are destroyed.
“It’s not easy to build homes overnight.”
The response efforts means some Caritas Fiji staff members will be stuck on the north island on Christmas Day.
“There doesn’t seem to be a break until everything eases,” Ms Ferei said.
Fiji declared a state of natural disaster for 30 days from December 17, which allows the government to enforce measures that will protect people in the aftermath of a natural disaster.
Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne said in a statement on December 19 that the Australian government would assist Fiji “in whatever capacity we can”.
“Australian air force aircraft (P-8 Poseidon) will be deployed to assist with aerial surveillance of storm affected areas,” Senator Payne said.
Emergency relief supplies were delivered to Fiji early this week.
Caritas Australia is now working with Caritas Fiji to provide churches and non-government organisations in Fiji with initial funds to undertake assessments and ensure communities have shelter, food and clean water.
The agency’s Pacific Humanitarian Co-ordinator, Alexandra Eaves, is working directly with Caritas Fiji to understand the level of support required from Australia.
Ms Eaves said financial assistance or monetary donations to the Pacific Emergency Appeal were vital in these early stages of the response.
“This helps us to be able to use those funds in countries throughout the Pacific impacted by emergencies, like Fiji,” she said.
“Every dollar counts.
“Especially at this time when COVID-19 is on the news so much, and we’re all concerned about ourselves, I think it’s really important to remember that there are other people out there who could really use our help too.”