After Ami, Fiji Red Cross turns attention to long-term needs

by Andrew Macalister, in Labasa
Gopalan Pillay has one simple request: "Make my house better, please."

The 78-year-old resident of the northern Fijian town of Labasa is one of the many victims of Cyclone Ami, which struck the Pacific nation on 14 January.

The 200 km an hour winds ripped the roof off his home, which was also flooded by the heavy rains unleashed by the cyclone. Gopalan has lost most of his possessions.

Two weeks after Ami struck, Gopalan lives alone in the ruins of his home, sleeping on a double bed with a tarpaulin draped over it, in the only room where any corrugated iron roofing remains.

At night he cannot sleep for the dripping water, as summer rains persist in the area. During the day, he is surrounded by the sodden and ruined reminders of the home he has lived in for 30 years - a fridge stands exposed to the weather and he has rescued a few clothes and personal items from the mud and water.

Further up the Labasa River, Keni Waqanisau, of the village of Uluinakavika, has moved his family into an adjoining sleep-out, from where he shows me the remains of his home. Two walls have collapsed and his roof has disappeared. Unlike many other villagers in the area, Keni escaped flooding and still has his possessions and crops.

"How will I rebuild my home?" he asks, uncertain of what the future holds.

Farmer Kissun Datt faces a different predicament. His house remains, but his crops do not. Instead, he points to a slat brown field of silt, littered with fallen trees and household debris. There is no sign of the sugar cane, peanuts and vegetables that once grew there.

Kissun says he will not be able to grow crops for another two years - crops that once fed his family and provided his sole source of income. Even the peanuts he had already harvested and was drying for sale in the market have been ruined.

In the first days after Ami, the Fiji Red Cross led the relief effort in Vanua Levu, providing food, tarpaulins, clothing and water to more than 50,000 people throughout the remote northern region. Volunteers travelled by boat, helicopter, four-wheel-drive and on foot to reach the villages and settlements scattered throughout Vanua Levu and outlying islands.

For these efforts, even the Fijian Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase singled out the Red Cross for praise for being the first to respond to those in need.

But now, the Red Cross is looking to meet more than just immediate needs. "Many people will be living with the impact of Ami for months to come," says Fiji Red Cross Director-General Alison Cupit.

"The work of restoring water supplies, rehabilitating schools and providing shelter will go on throughout 2003. In addition, many families will face significant economic hardship over the coming year, as they have lost crops, households possessions and, in some cases, all their savings," she adds.

To support the Fiji Red Cross in its efforts, the International Federation has launched an appeal for 820,000 Swiss francs (US$552,000). The aim is to assist more than 30,000 people, focusing primarily on providing drinking water, non-food relief items, shelter and reconstruction materials for community facilities such as schools.

"The Pacific presents a unique set of circumstances for the Red Cross," says the head of the International Federation's Pacific Regional Delegation, Leon Prop. "While there are not large numbers of people, residents are spread far and wide across scattered archipelagos and in the rugged interior, and are very vulnerable to natural disasters."

"The Fiji Red Cross response to Ami shows we can meet these demands, but the challenges will be significant," he says.