UN Resident Co-ordinator Moved By TC Yasa Survivors

During his visit to the Northern Division, he visited affected communities and spoke to individuals who had lost much, including loved ones.
30 Dec 2020 17:04
UN Resident Co-ordinator Moved By TC Yasa Survivors
United Nations Resident Co-ordinator Sanaka Samarasinha. Photo: Ronald Kumar

Rebuilding according to cyclone proof standards, assuring people that their properties are safe and getting them to evacuation centres are some of the key lessons that UN Resident Co-ordinator Sanaka Samarasinha thinks Fiji can learn from in the aftermath of Cyclone Yasa.

Mr Samarasinha was part of the first team of officials who went to Vanua Levu hours after the category five cyclone damaged hundreds of households and structures and ended up claiming lives on December 17.

Need for training to help with trauma

For someone who has witnessed four category five cyclones within his lifetime, it was a sad moment to see all the homes destroyed. He said Fiji was fortunate that more lives were not lost.

During his visit to the Northern Division, he visited affected communities and spoke to individuals who had lost much, including loved ones.

A young boy he met shared how he was trapped under rubble overnight next to his father’s lifeless body until help arrived the next morning.

“You can imagine the kind of trauma he has to deal with. It’s not obvious now, in fact he had a cut on his arm and we were trying to get him to go and see a doctor but he didn’t want to go,” Mr Samarasinha said.

“He will need counselling, his mother and younger brother too and others in the community. They were all very distraught.

“There was a great deal of trauma, some of it on the surface. It was very traumatic for a lot of people, 23-30 years; they had not seen anything like it. Some hid under the floorboards, one mother put her child inside a suitcase.”

Mr Samarasinha thinks there was a need to train more people on how to respond to the psycho-social support and counselling services needed for victims of natural disasters.

This is work, he mentions, that some non-government organisations (NGOs) are already doing on Vanua Levu.

Fijian resilience

“To be perfectly honest, I found the people more resilient than the homes they were living in. That’s Fiji. It’s sad that because of climate change you face too many of these disasters. It’s getting worse and more intense, but we will see more of these and we need to figure out how to build on people’s resilience,” he said.

One of the things that Mr Samarasinha found very telling was the sense of optimism that people had despite having lost so much.

This was seen more in the villages due to greater social cohesion rather than the settlements closer to town.

One of the Government’s first priorities after the cyclone was to ensure that people were safe, however some schools which were used as evacuation centres did not withstand the cyclone.

“It’s very difficult to build something to withstand category 5 cyclone, but it’s possible and some of the schools and newer buildings that had been constructed according to the standards in place now in Fiji withstood those winds,” he said.

“Moving forward people need to feel safe where they are being evacuated to. Recent buildings are being built to standard and we must continue that practice.”

Impressed with Government response

Mr Samarasinha said he was very impressed by how quickly the Government responded after the cyclone, clearing the roads for access and deploying teams to co-ordinate relief assistance, including water and food.

However, there were challenges around co-ordination as people wanted to respond to the cyclone quickly and give as much as they could without the assistance of National Disaster Management Office (NDMO) and the Commissioner’s Office.

To address this he said mechanisms need to be activated to ensure that relief is targeted and to avoid duplication of assistance to communities.

Expanding training sessions to Government officials and NGOs on disaster management is an aspect that the United Nations would continue in the future and also embed their staff to work with Government in terms of data analysis and co-ordination.

“We, as the UN, are working hand in hand with the Government to ensure that the Government’s capacity is strengthened in order to be able to respond effectively and efficiently,” he said.

“There is a lot that can be done in terms of co-ordinating response and building back better, but having seen it first hand from the inside as a part of the PM’s briefings and tours to the North, I was quite impressed in comparison to other countries I have served in before.

“In Fiji because you have had a lot more disasters, you are far more prepared than other countries and governments I have worked with around the world.”

“But we as an international community need to think what we can do more.”

Edited by Jonathan Bryce


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