In ten minutes, a hurricane releases more energy than all of the world’s nuclear weapons combined.
I returned to Kioa on Thursday afternoon. After waiting at the bus stand from 6:45 to 8:00 am and learning there were no buses to Buca Bay and possibly wouldn’t be until next week I searched for alternatives. The Suliven Ferry had pulled into port as well as the Westland, a smaller ferry. The Westland was making a trip to Taveuni. I called our Country Director to see if the all clear had been given on boat transportation but didn’t hear back in time before they left.
At 11:00 am I finally heard back from Peace Corps that they would fund a lorrie transport back to site. This was currently the only, and very expensive, option. I packed my things and headed out. About 4km outside of town the phones stopped working. Sand was washed over the road in several locations and the remnants of carved up trees once sprawled across the road were everywhere. We passed four dump trucks and two track loaders slowly putting the pieces back together. The dump trucks were simply emptying their loads in the middle of the road with no equipment to spread it. Therefore, the already challenging roads before the storm hit where made monumentally more difficult to navigate. At one point we became slightly airborne from a hidden series of undulations in the recently laid road base.
The 1985 Mitsubishi B8500 held together fine, though. The driver’s confidence in his machine was nothing less than inspirational. His driving style was a mix between Monster Truck and NASCAR with a touch of grandpa. They grandpa came into play while passing pedestrians. He would always throw a hand out the window or work the winded horn while white knuckling a hairpin turn on gravel with the other.
Meanwhile I was trying to survey the damage but found it hard to keep my eyes off the road constantly wondering if the ditch ahead would be my final resting place. Alas, we safely arrived at Nutuvu bay. The next leg of the journey via fibre was much more uncertain. Without phones I couldn’t call for a boat and I was simply relying on faith that one would be there at the jetty or a villager would have one nearby. I tried to hire the Nutuvu Mission’s boat but that went nowhere quick. I asked about Sonny’s boat, a ferry operator living nearby, but the word was his boat was now onshore. Finally Moses showed up. Not part the Red Sea Moses, although that would have been helpful, but the stocky Fijian Moses. He had a boat and asked what the fare was for typically boat rides to Kioa. I told him and then he doubled it saying fuel would cost $25 when in actuality it only costs about $11. My next best alternative was sleeping on the jetty so I took the deal.
On the way over the contrast between the Vanua Levu side of the bay and the Kioa side of the bay was shocking. It looked like a blue northern with a blowtorch had attacked Kioa. The vegetation that hadn’t been blown to Egypt was brown and the trees were barren and stark. As we rounded the point making our way into Salia Bay the first thing I noticed was how open everything looked. Before the green foliage cradled the village like a baby in swaddling clothes. Now it more closely resembled a Mexican border town. The once majestic and plump Baka trees were half their normal size with a half of their limbs blown backward. I noticed several roofs strangely vacant and the main village bure on the beach now absent.
The captain offloaded me at the same spot I had left from almost one week ago when Peace Corps mandated that I evacuate. Several villagers were gathered around an umu, which somehow had survived the storm, and were playing cards and eating. This is the exact same thing they were doing when I left so it was a strange sign of comfort that things may be OK I asked Semeulu if everybody was safe and he simply said, “Yes.” I tried to get some elaboration but the gist of it turned out that despite the damage visible from the bay somehow nobody had gotten injured during the onslaught.
I made my way to our house through the debris and rubbish covering the once peaceful and shaded footpath. The first thing I notices was the bare Baka tree that once stood between our house and the shore. Most of its leaves were now collected on our lawn along with coconut palms, coconuts, and random branches of trees blown from who knows where. Our neighbors kindly placed my papao below our house and turned it over so it wouldn’t fill with water. Samalu’s sons had tied the roof of our restroom and shower extension down with thick rope. A sight I couldn’t believe was the survival of the hanging topsy-turvy planter and my homemade Fijian Flip Flopper planter. Of course the plants were long gone but the planters had survived the 240km/hour wind gusts dangling from the eaves.
The inside of the house was a different story. The floor was coated with leaves, sand, debris, and salt. Everything in the house was wet and covered with a thin layer of a sand and salt grime. Our neighbors reported that the storm surge waves hit our house and water most likely covered the bottom 2-3 feet of our home.
I really didn’t know where to start with the clean up processes. Everywhere I turned there was something to clean, sweep, or wipe down. I suddenly had great empathy for flood victims. After about three days of cleaning the house was somewhat back to normal.
Kelly made it back to Savusavu after trying for a few days to get a flight out of Suva. Thankfully phone service was re-established the day she came back to Kioa, seven days after the storm hit.
Since she has been back we’ve pretty much cleaned every day, all day. We had to purchase another mattress and pillows but other than that we think we've salvaged most items (except for electronics and paper products) through sunning them everyday. The good news is it has been hot and somewhat breezy every day since Tomas making the drying out process faster. The bad news it has been hot and not nearly breezy enough since Tomas making the sweating process almost unbearable.
Yesterday, the 26th, the clouds were here and Kelly’s bodily sweat-o-meter forecasted imminent showers. She tends to erupt prior to all major precipitation events, which has become quite handy for my outdoor pursuits. Hopefully this gift remains when we get back to the states and I can farm her out as a part time meteorologist. With rain on the forecast I decided to clean out the rain catchment. It was coated with sea spray residue and full of sand and salt water.
This was not a fun process. Just draining the 5,000 litre tank took three hours. The local ducks, which our new neighbors brought with them when they moved in after their roof got blown away, loved the man made pond. The tamaliki’s (children) also had a lot of fun splashing in the puddles.
After it fully drained I tipped it over and crawled into the 36” diameter hole with a scrub brush, headlamp, and water hose. It was about 300 degrees inside the tank with no air circulation. My glasses immediately fogged rendering them useless. I was glad I had decided to take on this venture, however, as the bottom was black with mud and sides had a thin layer of sand. After scrubbing and washing for about 45 minutes Lima helped me tip the tank back to its foundation and I re-installed the tap.
The rain never showed up in the afternoon and I was beginning to worry we might be stuck with tap water for the foreseeable future. This is the same water that tested positive for pathogens a few weeks back. About 10 pm, though, the skies opened and it rained all night filling the tank with about 1,000 litres.
All in all we really dodged a bullet with this storm. If the eye wall had passed over Kioa I’m not sure if even our house, much less the older less reinforced houses, would have withstood the winds and am frankly surprised how they made it through the reported 240km/hour (150mph) winds as it is.
Restoration is quickly on the way forward and as of today, the 27th, most of the debris is cleared and people are back to their routines. The government brought two week rations yesterday and is planning on coming back with a three-month supply soon after those run out. We’ve heard there is a sugar shortage but of anything to be short of in Fiji, sugar is probably the best thing. As Fiji has one of the highest per capita percentages of population with diabetes and obesity in the world.
We are also back to a routine and are trying to help where needed. Frankly, the Kioans are very self reliant and we haven’t had to do a whole lot. That is good as Peace Corps main goal is capacity building helping people build skills to help themselves. We stand ready, though, to step in once people have more time away from planting and weaving to re-start our training programs and projects. Hopefully all this will be nothing but an unpleasant memory in a few months.