By Mark Michael
Tropical Cyclone Yasa, a category 5 storm, pounded the South Pacific island nation of Fiji on December 17, bringing wind gusts of 350 km/hr. (217 mph.) and waves surges over 12 meters (39 feet) high. Four people have been confirmed dead and one is missing, and over 8,000 people have been displaced from their homes.
The storm passed over Vanua Levu, the Fijian archipelago’s most densely populated island, as well as the smaller island of Tavueni, destroying hundreds of homes and public buildings, as well as growing crops. Roads are blocked and power is out in many communities.
The Diocese of Polynesia, which serves the Anglicans of Fiji as well as those who live in Tonga, Samoa, and the Cook Islands, is playing an important role in recovery efforts. While less than 1% of Fijians are Anglicans today (the Methodist Church is the largest single religious group), the church has been active there since the early 19th century and the Diocese of Polynesia’s cathedral is in Suva, the country’s capital and largest city.
The Rev. Sepiuta Hala’api’api, the diocesan registrar reported to Anglican Taonga, the news source for the Anglican Church of Aotearoa, New Zealand, and Polynesia, that five churches, six worship centers, and three church schools are located in the worst affected areas. Church vicarages and halls are among the 171 emergency evacuation centers set up across the island to house and feed the homeless.
The diocese is surveying its congregations about the extent of damage and the emergency needs in their local communities, using a cadre of recently trained youth volunteers. They will soon be sending out relief supplies to the hardest hit areas. Anglican Missions, the Anglican Church of Aotearoa, New Zealand, and Polynesia’s relief agency, will coordinate the distribution of resources on the ground. If funds are available, the agency may also direct assistance toward recovery from the cyclone in Tonga, where the damage was significant, but less severe. The Anglican Alliance, the Communion’s organization for development, relief, and advocacy has launched an emergency appeal to support the needs of those impacted by the storm.
Cyclone Yasa, one of the strongest storms ever documented in the South Pacific, compounds the devastating economic blow Fiji has suffered from COVID-19. There have been only a handful of COVID cases and two deaths in the nation of nearly a million people, but the tourism-dependent economy has suffered a 21 percent slump, the worst downturn of any Pacific nation.
The Diocese of Polynesia had already been implementing a new relief and recovery program to respond to widespread joblessness and hunger in Fiji. Distributions of essential supplies will continue, and plans are in the works to provide counselors to local communities and to establish community gardens on the grounds of each parish church.
Archbishop Fereimi Cama of the Diocese of Polynesia expressed gratitude on behalf of his people, saying: ““Thank you to all those who have contacted us with your words of support and offers of prayer, our people appreciate your concern for us at this time.” Noting progress made in disaster relief since Cyclone Harold struck the country earlier this year, he added, “We are grateful to God that we have been better prepared this time round for this category five Cyclone Yasa.”