Always be ready for the worst and hope for the best
NDMO director Anare Leweniqila updaes his permanent secretary David KolitaganeSoldiers man the radio and keep in touch with the EOCs.As Tropical Cyclone Mona roared across the islands, a group of men sat huddled around a conference table in a semi-lit room, their heads turned towards a big screen showing a satellite image of the potential threat coming their way.
One closest to the screen moved the cursor to show others in the room the possible track of the category two cyclone predicted to bare down on Rotuma and head towards the Yasawa Islands.
Anare Motokula, Senior Statistician Demography at Fiji’s Bureau of Statistics, had all the information with the points marked on the map that Mona was expected to cross.
Along Mona’s projected path, a 50km radius marked in orange projected the impact of where the estimated 100km/hour winds would be felt.
The map showed the population for every island, province, district, and village along its path for representatives of government departments and emergency respondents from the Fiji Police Force, Fiji Corrections Services, Republic of Fiji Military Forces, National Fire Authority and humanitarian partners, the Red Cross and Salvation Army to see.
Minister for National Disaster Management, Meteorological Services and Infrastructure Jone Usamate and Defence Minister Inia Seruiratu, who previously had the National Disaster Management Office (NDMO) under his portfolio, sat at one end of the table taking notes.
Behind them, a man updated a whiteboard as information trickled in from the Central, Eastern, Northern and Western divisions.
The number of road and bridge closures, rising water levels in flood-prone rivers, shipping and air service cancellations and evacuation centres were regularly updated.
In an adjacent room, amid the crackling static of the radio, three soldiers sat listening intently as a voice broke through.
“Calling Delta Victor 37, Delta Victor 100 qo (this is Delta Victor 100),” a man, on the other end, said.
“Keitou se vakatovotovo tiko yani (This is a test call).”
“Roger 100, keitou rogoci kemudou vinaka qo (We hear you loud and clear),” replied one of the men in green.
“Miri tiko na lagi, keitou sa tu vakarau tu qo i Lautoka (It’s drizzling here and we are ready in Lautoka),” came the reply.
This is the NDMO Operations Centre.
Since it was activated at 6pm on Friday (January 4, 2019), a day after tropical disturbance TDO4F was identified and named, there had been a flurry of activity on the third floor of Nasilivata House in Samabula, Suva.
Amid it all, NDMO Director Anare Leweniqila gave out his instructions.
As his office was inundated by calls he calmly reiterated his call through all available media platforms for people to get ready.
“Disasters do happen. We should be prepared for the worst and hope for the best,” he told the media.
With seven cyclones predicted for the region this cyclone season, Fiji had upgraded its state of readiness.
Mr Leweniqila said like the rest of our neighbours in the Pacific, the cost of natural disasters on vulnerable economies had a great impact on the lives of people and they could not stress enough why people had to be ready.
He said Cyclone Winston – which killed 44 and left behind a F$2.98million bill, damaged 40,000 homes and significantly impacted 350,000 people – taught Fiji many lessons on being prepared for the worst.
To reduce the vulnerability, as well as the social, economic and environmental costs of disasters, The Pacific Community (SPC) through its Building Safety and Resilience in the Pacific (BSRP) Project has been supporting Fiji to put in place measures to help countries cope and better prepare for disasters. The €19.57 million project is funded by the European Union (EU) through the ACP (Africa, Caribbean and Pacific) Group of States and has been instrumental in increasing communications between Fiji’s National Disaster Management team across the country.
Mr Leweniqila said in Fiji’s case, scientific and technical support made a tremendous difference both in the preparation for TC Mona and for the NDMO. Its five EOCs in Tavua, Lautoka, Nadi, Nausori and Nabouwalu were refurbished through the BSRP project to meet new standards..
“Our EOCs now reflect our main operations centre and there is better co-ordination and efficiency in how we operate,” he said. “We are now able to provide robust data that improves our response and overall performance, especially now with cyclones starting to appear outside the traditional cyclone season.”
These EOC centres ensure timely and relevant information is able to be fed back to the national team. The centres are equipped with telecommunications technology so during any potential disaster the teams across the country can still continue to coordinate and best support the people of Fiji to prepare for, respond to and recover from disaster.
There was little rest for the NDMO team as the EOCs were activated across the country and 40 evacuation centres were set up to accommodate more than 2000 evacuees who were affected by flooding and landslides.
Mr Leweniqila said communications had never been better.
“We have never been this prepared. For that, we greatly value our partnership with the EU and SPC.”
Applauding the work of NDMO, the Head of Cooperation at the EU Delegation for the Pacific, Mr Christoph Wagner, said: ”We are delighted to have been able to assist the NDMO in coordinating disaster management actions effectively. As you can see from the recent experience, the assistance has been instrumental in strengthening the disaster resilience in Fiji.”
The Pacific Community’s (SPC) Director of the Geoscience, Energy and Maritime (GEM) Division, Dr Andrew Jones commended the technical input by BSRP in the EOCs.
He said “the need for increased communication was identified by Fiji as a priority after the devastation of Cyclone Winston through detailed consultations and the result of this work is evident in the preparation and response by the Fiji team during TC Mona”.
Seventy-two hours after the EOCs were activated, Mona was making her exit through the Lau Group. Elsewhere around the country, recovery and relief work went on. Damage had been minimal.
“People have learnt their lesson from TC Winston and taken heed of our advice. We can see they are more resilient and safety-minded during such times,” said Mr Leweniqila
In the NDMO operations room, the only sign of a cyclone were the sheets of papers left strewn behind on the table as the team went home to rest, knowing their country and people were safe, from this cyclone at least.