Stronger than Winston – how Fiji is recovering

Keen to find out how Fiji has fared following the devastating onslaught of Tropical Cyclone Winston, we interview Heather Sutton, a Firefighter and Official Dive Addict, who was staying at the Taveuni Dive Resort when category 5 cyclone hit.

Heather was also there – above and below water – to help with the cleanup and to check out the state of the nearby reefs in the days following.

What was it like weathering the storm? Did you fear for your life?

When I booked the dive holiday in Fiji, a direct hit by a category 5 cyclone was not on my agenda!

Cyclone Winston Winds Buffer Zone

The bures at the resort were built to cyclone specifications thanks to the insistence of the owners Carl and Muriel Fox. As a result we were provided with food supplies and buttoned up in the bures at around 8am on the 20th. I was more concerned about the staff – my good friends – who were in their staff housing further up the hill, worried about the large glass windows on that property.

Being a firefighter by trade meant that I adopted the proven strategy of having some food, watching a movie, having a nap and saving energy as I knew as soon as the storm passed that there would be lots of work to be done. Finally at 3pm we emerged to survey the damage.

Tropical Cyclone Winston is the storm out the window at Taveuni Dive Resort Diveplanit Blog photo credit Heather Sutton

What damage has Taveuni sustained?

The damage to the Southern Part of the Island was extensive with the village of Vuna (normally 20 mins by road) almost completely destroyed (8 out of 118 houses left standing). The main road was not passable without a chainsaw and a good 4WD for the first three days.

The Taveuni Dive Resort fared extremely well (one bent fan blade in the restaurant – not kidding) with the main issue being that the marina and sea wall were destroyed.  It is currently being rebuilt and there is now one dock back in use. Luckily the concrete slipway was only buried under 2m of detritus and was able to be dug out by hand so we could get boats back in the water four days after the storm. Getting the boats back in the water was a priority as the roads up north to Matei were still not fully cleared or safe to drive.

The resort was established as Taveuni’s first eco-friendly dive resort and is powered by a large Solar array with battery and generator backups, so we were fortunate enough to have a solid roof over our heads and to have solar hot water and gas for cooking (once some repairs were made). Others were not so fortunate.

How have the locals responded?

The locals dug in and got to work in the usual Fijian way – with smiles on their faces and thanks for being alive. We had staff members walk two hours to show up for work the day after the cyclone.

Many people lost their homes but are determined to keep things operating – the lovely owners of Civa Pearls, Claude and Danielle were back in their boutique soon after Cyclone Winston despite their house collapsing around them and the devastating loss of the implantation shed on the pearl farm.

Civa Fiji Peals homestead is demolished by Tropical Cyclone Winston Diveplanit Blog

The aid situation was very lacking with the first major organisations arriving 2 weeks after the event and most of them apparently here “to assess the situation” which they could have done by phone. Big Shout out to the doctors of Reach Out World Wide though, who flew themselves in on a Fiji Link flight with bags full of medication and dressing, and treated over 600 people in three days.

How soon after Cyclone Winston did you go for your first dive?

The cyclone hit on the 20th of February and our first dives were on the 25th February.

Divers first foray below the surface after Tropical Cyclone Winston Diveplanit Blog photo credit Heather Sutton

What were conditions like?

Visibility was 15-20m which is a little down on the norm but to be expected with the amount of storm surge experienced through the Somosomo Strait. The first sites assessed were Fish Factory and Jerry’s Jelly.

Jerry's Jelly at Taveuni after Tropical Cyclone Winston Blog

There was some damage to the shallow hard corals down to 10m on the south facing site of Fish Factory, but Jerry’s Jelly which faces southeast sustained no damage at all.

Initial view of the coral reefs at Taveuni after Tropical Cyclone Winston Diveplanit Blog photo credit Heather Sutton

How did the Great White Wall look?

It took us a few days to get out to the Great White Wall as we needed low slack tide, but we can now openly and thankfully report: “Fantastic with no damage at all”

Great White Wall, Taveuni Fiji post Cyclone Winston

Did Rainbow Reef sustain any damage?

The majority of sites on Rainbow Reef are fortunately east/west facing, and if you didn’t know the sites you would struggle to spot any damage whatsoever. There was a little damage to the shallow northerly facing sites though, with table corals being flipped and larger stag horns being snapped off.

Rainbow Reef at Taveuni after Tropical Cyclone Winston Diveplanit Blog photo credit Heather Sutton

Have you heard any reports about other areas in Fiji?

We have heard that some sites in the Namena Reserve have been damaged due to their exposed nature. The large patch of leather corals that make up the Kansas dive site have been destroyed and many of the soft corals on top of The Arch have been blown off. Reports from the Bligh Water are fairly positive with the average damage to sites being around 15 per cent of sites sustaining noticeable damage.

Jerrys Jelly Taveuni Fiji, post cyclone Winston

With the exception of Taveuni’s Paradise Resort, the majority of resorts, even some right under the path of Winston, are opening doors once again to divers – often as re-building work continues. Even the badly damaged Voli Voli Beach Resort will be open to dive groups on 16 May 2016. Anyone with an existing booking would be aware of their resort’s status by now.

Anyone who might have been having second thoughts about a Fiji dive holiday shouldn’t. Right now the Fijians would value your patronage more than at any other time.

Some places are even offering discounts as an incentive. And if you are going don’t forget to Pack For A Purpose.

(Dive photo credits: Heather Sutton).

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