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Cyclone Winston batters Fiji Islands

The Vicar General of Polynesia is a veteran of tropical cyclones, but nothing prepared him for last Saturday.
• AMB Cyclone Winston Emergency Appeal 

Taonga News  |  21 Feb 2016  |

Fr Orisi Vuki, the Vicar General of the Diocese of Polynesia, is 55.

He’s lived through a few tropical cyclones in his time.

But none, he says, have come close to the ferocity of Cyclone Winston, which raged across Fiji on Saturday evening and through the pre-dawn hours of Sunday.

Living through that, he says, was “very, very terrifying. I just could not believe how powerful wind can be. In my 55 years, I have never experienced anything like it.”

Like everyone living in Fiji, Fr Orisi is today groping in the dark, trying to assemble a picture of the damage done.

Phone and power lines have been down since Saturday, and Fr Orisi has this morning travelled the few kilometres from his church, St Matthews Nabua (near the Suva army barracks), to the Diocesan office in Suva to try to get a better sense of what’s happening – and to charge his mobile phone.

At this stage, Fr Vuki says, he’s still not even clear how everyone in his own parish of Nabua is coping: the curfew was only lifted this morning, and fallen trees are still blocking roads, meaning some people are still impossible to reach.

The long vigil

Fr Orisi weathered the worst of the cyclone inside his own church.

He’d been planning to head over to the west side of Viti Levu on Saturday to attend some ordinations - Archbishop Winston Halapua, who would normally do the honours at such a service, was en route to the Marshall Islands.

But as the winds began to howl, the skies began to darken and the weather reports grew more dire, Fr Orisi canned his Saturday plan. He decided to stay put in Nabua.

About 6:30pm he walked from the vicarage to the church to check on things there.

The next four or five hours, he says, were the worst.

Sheets of corrugated iron from nearby roofs scythed through the air and speared into the church compound, while mango tree branches sailed across the sky before they too, crash-landed in the churchyard.

One of these branches – big enough that “it would take a couple of people to lift” – hurdled the roof and crashed down on the far side of the church.

Had that bough slammed into the church roof, says Fr Orisi, that roof would surely have broken.

Torn apart around them

Fr Orisi was joined in the church by four strangers – a man who drove up, a young boy, and a husband and wife who arrived in their car about 7:30pm. As they felt their home being torn apart around them, they fled to shelter in the church.

Fr Orisi escorted the woman to the vicarage, and she’s now being cared for by his wife Esita and their daughters.

He returned to the church, and that’s where he and the two other men and the young lad, spent the night.

“We locked everything we could, tried to nail boards across the windows and doors to stop the wind and rain – and then the only thing left to do was sit in the middle of the church and pray.”

The church survived intact. The vicarage is OK, too. Some missing roofing iron, he says, but that can be sorted.

He says the loss of power is not a major problem. “We can manage without electricity. But having clean water is essential, and we are boiling all our water.”

And not knowing how people are faring who live in other towns, or in the outlying areas, which are certain to be worst affected – that’s a problem, too.

So what can the rest of us do now?

“We just need people to pray for us at this difficult time. And we want to say ‘thank you to the people from the world who are concerned for us. We do value and need your support.”

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A message from the two New Zealand archbishops to bishops, registrars and concerned Anglicans:

Archbishop Philip Richardson has been in contact with the Diocesan office in Fiji to assure them of our love and prayers, and to assure them of our commitment to help in any practical way.  

The Diocesan office in Suva is struggling to get information as large sections of the city, and nation, are without power, and many areas are without water. 

Phone networks are affected, so detailed reports from other parts of the Fiji islands and other parts of Polynesia are still very difficult to obtain. 

People in Fiji are dependent on news reports, which are also difficult to access.  Consequently, we may have more information than those on the ground in the affected areas. 

Many schools are severely damaged, or are being used as evacuation centres, so a week of school closures has been announced. 

The curfew imposed to enable immediate clearing and dangers to be addressed was lifted at 5.30am this morning. 

The Diocesan office staff hope to be able to gather more information in the next 24 hours.

We direct you to Anglican Taonga online, where news will be posted as it comes to hand: http://anglicantaonga.org.nz/

Anglican Missions is arranging an Appeal, and more can be seen at their website shortly: http://www.angmissions.org.nz/?sid=1

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The St John's College Trust Board has just announced it will make an emergency $200,000 grant to help church schools in the Diocese of Polynesia get back on their feet after the cyclone.

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