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Surviving cyclone season


As the rains pour down, Fiji Red Cross is gearing up for a busy monsoon with the support of Australian volunteer Kirra Litchfield.

Emosi Sakaturu, Subesh Prasad and Australian volunteer Kirra Litchfield place cooking items into an emergency kit for people displaced by disasters. (Photo: Australian Red Cross / Zayne D'Crus)

It's raining again in Suva. Great sheets of warm water unravel down the winding streets, while thunder shifts abruptly from rumbles to roars and lightning bolts strike the wet earth far too close for comfort.

It's a tense time of year for Fiji Red Cross, this season of monsoon and cyclones. Flooding can occur almost anywhere, from the thickly forested interior of Vanua Levu to the tourist hub of Nadi, threatening homes and livelihoods. Fiji experiences around 10-15 cyclones per decade; the most recent, Cyclone Tomas, left entire villages in the northernmost islands under water.

"The cyclones come with flooding, which badly affects the low-lying areas," says Eseroma Ledua, Disaster Management Coordinator for Fiji Red Cross. "When we don't have a cyclone, we expect a flood anyway. We get regular tsunami warnings too."

This year the Red Cross team has ramped up its planning, preparing a new round of disaster risk assessments and increasing its training for volunteers around the country. They are assisted in this process by Australian volunteer Kirra Litchfield.

Kirra is part of Australian Volunteers for International Development, an Australian Government, AusAID initiative. Supported by Australian Red Cross, her role is to work with the Fiji Red Cross team to strengthen disaster management programs.

Fiji Red Cross already has an impressive track record in this area. Giant shipping containers are used to store pre-positioned relief supplies around the country. When disasters strike, they enable easy access to the relief items that people need most. Each container carries 'black packs' filled with essentials such as pots, plates, bedding, toothpaste and sanitary items, all wrapped in black tarpaulins that can be used to construct makeshift shelters or create private areas for washing and sleeping. There are water purification tablets, and Red Cross even has a portable water purification system that can be quickly transported to areas in need.

The Red Cross logistics and disaster teams share the responsibility for ensuring that shipping containers are well stocked and strategically positioned. The disaster management team also has the wider mandate of coordinating local branch staff and volunteers when disaster strikes, as well as helping communities to prepare for disasters.

"Disaster management isn't just about disasters, and that's a key point," explains Kirra. "The program here looks at health issues, poverty, economic risks and many other issues."

In Fiji, disaster management is linked to a wider AusAID and Red Cross strategy that aims to build a buffer between people and poverty, by increasing community and financial resilience to stresses and life changes. Preparation is a tricky topic to discuss, as people tend to focus on the problems they have right now rather than the disaster that may or may not happen.

As Eseroma explains, Fiji Red Cross is looking to the past to help people prepare for the future. "We are encouraging people to use traditional ways of predicting disasters and coping. For example, our great-grandparents would watch the birds. If they moved their nests lower down the trees, it was a sign that a cyclone is coming. In cyclone seasons, our great-grandparents would plant a certain kind of root crop, which they knew would survive the damage. We need to get these kind of coping mechanisms back."

Old ways can be combined with new tools. Kirra and her colleagues Subesh and Emosi are revamping training programs for Red Cross volunteers to help them assess a community's geographic and social vulnerabilities, identify ways to reduce risks, and conduct initial damage assessments after a disaster. This ensures that Fiji Red Cross, through its 15 branches around the country, will have a presence in the most vulnerable communities.

Progress is being made at the national office in Suva as well. "Kirra has assisted us a lot with planning," says Eseroma, to whom Kirra reports. "This year our annual plan was completed ahead of time and showed each activity correlated with the relevant budget lines. This makes it easier for our donors to see how we use the money.

"Another thing she is doing is resource mapping, strengthening our networks with agencies like the National Disaster Management Office to integrate our work with their work."

A combination of Fijian and Australian expertise can lead to a stronger and better-equipped Red Cross society. "We want volunteers from overseas to come and share new ideas that can add more value to the work we do, and to strengthen the capacity that is already here in our organisation."

For her part, Kirra is highly impressed with her new workplace. "Fiji Red Cross has an excellent reputation for its work in disaster management, health and first aid programs. But even so, coming here and seeing everything they do, it just floored me.

"My role's still in the baby stages. I'm starting to understand what needs to be done and what I can do, and slowly becoming part of the team."

And working with Red Cross has fulfilled a long-time career goal. "It's an organisation I can add value to, but also one aligned with my principles and values. I'm proud to work here."