I live in Melbourne, Australia and manage HOPE worldwide Australia. In December of last year I had the fortune of serving with volunteers at the HOPE Youth Corps in Fiji and when I heard about the cyclone that struck last weekend, I was eager to know how everyone was doing. I spent quite a bit of time this week on the phone to Alex Hernandez, who leads the churches in Fiji and lives in Suva. Through repeatedly broken calls, he gave me an update on how things are going. Many places are still without power or water. There was a lot of flooding with high sea levels and many homes were swept away by wind and water. Please be praying for the disciples, the wider community and the ongoing relief effort!
Worst cyclone in Fiji's recent history
On Saturday night, February 20, as curfew was in place, many people in Fiji stayed in their homes and prayed as the Category 5 cyclone tracked its course from west to east across the Fiji Islands. The full force just missed the main cities of Nadi and Suva, but leveled many villages across the interior and remote islands that lay in its path. The last major cyclone struck three years ago and the death toll was around 30. As the current death toll climbs to above 50, this is now known to be the worst cyclone in Fiji’s recent history, as well as being the strongest in the Southern Hemisphere.
For most people living in the city, the first thing that went was power. For those in the villages it was their homes. On Sunday morning, many could not communicate because phone and internet services were down, so when the 36-hour curfew was lifted, disciples in Nadi and Suva started to visit and support each other. Amazingly, everyone was accounted for unharmed, including a pregnant sister who was due to give birth. She had no power or water, but was fine. Despite the stories of survival and gratitude, everyone was adversely affected, because everyone is connected to a village. As news surfaced, it is apparent there are many sad stories from remote villages.
A lucky escape
In December, the HOPE Youth Corps served in Suva and Nailega village, about an hour outside of Suva. I was encouraged to hear that Nailega had survived and everyone was safe. The library that the HOPE worldwide volunteers had renovated was still standing! Other villages farther out were not so fortunate.
Many families lost their homes and livelihood (crops destroyed). A local neighbor of Alex had finished building his dream home and was two months from retiring. Now his home is gone, but he is just happy to be alive! On Wednesday night, a few days after the cyclone struck, disciples gathered for a midweek service. One person after another shared how God had protected them. “Trees fell sideways instead of hitting our homes,” one brother shared, then another, and another and so on. There was a general feeling that God sent angels to intervene, as in Hebrews 1:14, “Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?”
George, who leads our church in Nadi, shared how his family was together listening to the radio updates as the cyclone struck their home. As the roof started to shake they got down on their knees to pray. The shaking stopped and at the same time the announcement was heard on the radio that the cyclone had changed course; the family responded by shouting out praises to God! Another brother shared how he and his family were fine, though their windows smashed in from the force of the wind.
One of the brothers, Kenny, a taxi driver in Suva, shared how he was desperate to get home to his wife who is diabetic and has an amputated leg. During the storm he passed police check posts and dodged falling trees, and made it home without injury to himself or any damage to his car, his only means to an income.
Stories of great sadness
People in Fiji are very connected to each other. They have strong communities and when tragedy strikes, everyone shares the grief.
One of the sisters has family who live in a place called Koro where many villages were destroyed. There were many stories of sadness: two children being sucked away, a mother running out to get clothes for her children and not returning, people drowning due to high tides, others injured through falling trees, and fallen electric wires, which are still a hazard. One community took refuge in a church, but this was short-lived as the roof was torn off. A father ran with his 10-month-old baby trying to escape the floods, but unfortunately his grip was not tight enough and the baby was swept away.
|A HOPE Youth Corps volunteer Fijian children in December. Fortunately, this village was not swept away!
The spirit of Acts 28
Alex is amazed to see how the disciples and the community at large are serving and supporting each other. “The spirit of the disciples and people is like that of Acts 28:2,” he said. “The islanders showed us unusual kindness.”
Fijians are very resilient and also they do not want to complain. When you ask a Fijian how they are, you will often get: “I’m fine,” despite real hardship. This makes assessing needs tricky.
The international response has been encouraging. This week, relief teams arrived from New Zealand, Australia and China. Organizations and local government are assessing needs and starting to provide assistance; however, many remote areas still need help. Every disciple is doing something to help their home villages or the villages near them. It's amazing. Many are still venturing out to their villages to assess the situation. One brother, Lone, has family on a remote island. The only way to reach the island is a six-hour boat ride He got on a boat two days ago and there’s no word from him yet.
Alex received this text from a sister yesterday: "...It’s Lai...just wanna ask for your help to assist my family who was affected from TC Winston last wk..I will be going to Levuka on Saturday taking some stuff to help them cope..anything that will put smile to their faces will be appreciated..."
What can we do?
I spoke to Felix, a brother who leads the church in Papua New Guinea and also served in the HOPE Youth Corps in Fiji. I was moved by his response, even as Papua New Guinea is still recovering from a severe drought: “We feel deeply for our brothers and sisters in Fiji. This week the church has been praying and fasting for those affected by the cyclone. They are on our hearts.”
A team/committee is being set up in Fiji, one of whom will be Alex, to coordinate how the funds will be used to help those most in need.
Please pray for those who are injured, and those who are grieving. Pray for Fijians to draw close to God and for the relief effort to provide assistance to those in most need.