Columns / Discourse / March 2, 2016

Cyclone Winston devastates Fiji

On Saturday, Feb. 27, my adopted home of Fiji was devastated by Cyclone Winston, the first ever Category 5 cyclone in the South Pacific. The destruction is overwhelming: Dozens of villages have been completely wiped out, over seven percent of the country is homeless and there have been 43 confirmed deaths by the cyclone.

Friends’ homes are now nothing more than concrete foundations, their farms rotting, mosquito-infested swamplands. Next comes the dengue and typhoid–I am grateful that most of my Fijian friends know the importance of boiling their drinking water, and can thus avoid further suffering. Others with less access to education will not be so fortunate.

My area of the country, Sabeto, was largely spared the worst of it, suffering only flooding and downed trees. So after a few days of sunning mats and mattresses, life is beginning to return to normal, albeit by candlelight.

The same cannot be said for more central parts of the country. The islands in Lomaiviti, which literally means “inside Fiji,” lost the vast majority of their houses, including my Peace Corps friends that live there. There are still villages that, a week and a half later, we have been unable to make contact with.

Grieving works differently here: People were joking about death as soon as the cyclone had passed, but we know this covers a less readily-communicable trauma.

One elder in my village gave up on life the day after Winston, and so at his funeral one of the shirtless young men gave me a shovel and I joined them in physically burying the coffin. Though I know I made a strange sight — a skinny white man decked out in my village best throwing dirt alongside fit shirtless Fijian men — the feeling of a community beginning to heal was raw, and it felt relieving to physically bury someone after such a death-ridden month.

Many are still without food and shelter, and many more will need help in rebuilding after what has undoubtedly been the worst cyclone in Fiji’s long history. Thanks to a disturbingly unconcerned Western electorate and a long history of pro-fossil-fuel policies, Fijians are now wondering how long it will be until we have a Category 6 cyclone and how much longer Fijians can live here on their ancestral home islands until the risk becomes too great.

If you do not have the resources to contribute to disaster relief efforts, please at least consider your own role in the unfolding global catastrophe that is climate change. You may not feel record-breaking winds at your door, but many others do.

As citizens of the most powerful country on earth, it is important to keep in mind our decisions relating to environmental care impact everyone else on this tiny, fragile rock. The time for apathy is long over.  

Tom Courtright ’14 is a currently serving Peace Corps Volunteer in Sabeto, Fiji. You can donate to Severe Tropical Cyclone Winston recovery funds here: (

Tom Courtright
Tom Courtright is a columnist for The Knox Student, primarily covering Africa. He grew up in Kilimanjaro, Tanzania and is currently studying international relations, history and journalism. He begins his volunteer term with Peace Corps in September 2014, on the Pacific island of Fiji.

Tags:  Cyclone Winston discourse fiji Knox College letter to the editor Tom Courtright UNICEF

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