An aerial view of the destruction by Winston along the Fiji coast, as seen from a New Zealand Defense Forces airplane.
As the death toll from the strongest cyclone to make landfall climbs again today and the full scope of the disaster in Fiji begins to unfold, United Church of Christ Disaster Ministries is responding with $7,000 to help put tens of thousands of affected people on the Pacific island nation back on their feet.
Cyclone Winston, a Category 5 storm with winds approaching 200 miles per hour, made landfall on Feb. 20, leaving 29 people dead and 13,000 others stranded and living in temporary shelters. The funds provided by the UCC will help cover the costs of basic necessities such as materials for temporary shelters, educational supplies for children, medicine and clean drinking water.
"Fiji is made up of many islands and dotted with small villages that often lay vulnerable to tropical cyclones," said Zach Wolgemuth, Disaster Ministries executive. "While locals are often accustomed to cyclones, Winston was a direct hit and packed unprecedented force destroying entire villages in its path."
"Because we have relationships with local leaders and the local church in Fiji, we are able to respond quickly to specific needs," Wolgemuth added. "Our contacts know which areas have been greatly impacted, are not receiving support and are in need of outside assistance, allowing us to fill critical gaps."
The Rev. Nikotemo Sopepa, a pastor of St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Fiji also serving on the Pacific Council of Churches, explains that the northern part of Fiji was one of the hardest-hit areas and, in the past, typically received aid weeks or months after a disaster. "With the severity of the damage in the country, it could be two to three months before aid arrive," he said. "It is this part of the country I want to focus on."
"The destruction is vast, and we [can] focus only on particular villages or a village badly affected,” he adds. "[That] help will make a difference in the lives of people who literally have nothing to their name at this time."
With Sopepa helping coordinate the early response efforts in Fiji, Wolgemuth said he anticipates that Disaster Ministries will work through the Presbyterian Church of Fiji, with the possibility of additional support and collaboration through the Pacific Conference of Churches.
"In this time of need, we people of God continue to stand with our people here in Fiji,” Sopepa said. "Our hearts and prayers continue to be with families who sleep under open skies [or] partially-damage houses, and with good neighbors who offer them comfort in these trying times."
To donate to the UCC Emergency Relief Fund here.