Thundering Typhoons

283125-cyclone-evanA few years ago I took the family for a well-deserved break to Fiji. It’s only a short hop from Sydney so a comfortable flight on which to take a young family. It had been a busy year, so ten days relaxing by the pool with my wife whilst the children were at kids club sounded like heaven. Little did we know that within a few days we would be in the middle of the strongest typhoon to hit Fiji in more than 25 years.

Business travel usually entails thinking and planning only for yourself. The added responsibility of a young family in a natural disaster adds to the pressure and certainly clarifies the mind.

The holiday was all going well. The kids were having a great time and even I had started to relax. Then news began to filter through of a large cyclone heading our way. A day later Cyclone Evan ripped through Samoa causing total devastation and tragedy before continuing its track across the Pacific towards us.

The resort began to make preparations and posted updates along with meteorological tracks which showed the cyclone potentially weakening and heading out into the Pacific. This was greeted with a collective sigh of relief from the resort guests and staff. At worst a few overcast days and maybe some rain, although a number of contingency plans were beginning to crystallise in my mind, juuuuust in case.

The following morning as we strolled down to breakfast with the kids running ahead shouting Bula to everyone they met, I took a quick detour to check on the latest weather map. As I did so Cyclone Evan also decided to make a slight detour, swinging south and intensifying to a Category 4 cyclone, with wind gust of 190 kmph. That would track the storm directly overhead the resort in around 36 hours.

After breakfast we wandered back to the room and I started to put some of those contingency plans into effect. We had planned to go into the marina and have a look around the shops so this worked in nicely.

First stop was the ATM to make sure we had sufficient cash on hand. Power would probably go out which would close down all credit card/debit card options. If we wanted to move, we would need additional cash. I always carry USD100 secreted on me whenever I travel in Asia just in case things go wrong. US currency is generally better received than local currencies in Asia – just make sure you have it in small denominations.

Whilst the family were checking out the t-shirts, beachware and nick nacks I paid a visit to the local supermarket, picking up a case of bottled water some chocolate bars, chips and sweets.

Next the pharmacy, for Panadol, band aids, antiseptic creams, Imodium (never leave home without it!) and most importantly eyewash. 190kmph winds and eyes don’t mix.

Arriving back at the resort we found the staff busy removing anything that was not secured such as beach umbrellas, tables, chairs and any other objects that could potentially turn into missiles.

A check on the latest update at reception showed Evan still on track to hit us around midday the next day. The resort would be in lockdown effectively from 11am the following morning with all guests to be in their rooms. Large French doors on all rooms and other windows were to be taped up, a la 1940’s wartime London, to try and prevent flying glass.

Calm before the storm

Calm before the storm

Back in the room I went to work on preparing a “go” bag for us. Passports, airline tickets, bottled water, first aid kit, sunglasses/goggles (without snorkel) money, sunscreen, couple of chocy bars, phone charger, iPad and charger.

The children also had a small daypack with change of clothes (mainly socks and underwear) more water and chocy bars. Worst case scenario if we had to evacuate we could grab the two bags and go and be relatively self-sufficient for 24 hours.

That done, I had a look around the room. Anything that can turn into a missile? Pictures hanging on the wall how secure are they? A couple of traditional wood carvings of weapons!! All were taken down and put in a cupboard.

OK good! Time to hit the pool with the kids.

Back in the room later that evening we saw that the French doors had been taped up and the staff were busy around the resort removing the final sunbeds and tables.

As a family we had had a good chat through-out the previous evening and day. It was important that the children knew what was coming and although it was going to be a bit scary their mother and I would do everything to ensure they were safe. After all it was going to be a big adventure and going through a cyclone was a pretty cool story to tell the kids back at school!

At dinner there was an air of anticipation with most families quiet and withdrawn although there were a few loud comments and nervous laughter that you often get when people are anxious and concerned about the unknown.

We strolled back to the room that night and we all sat around and had a chat. Everyone was to be in their rooms by 11 the next morning so we would all have breakfast, come back to our room and do any final preparations.

Everyone was to then get into long sleeved top, long pants and proper shoes/trainers. No thongs, flip flops sandals, bikinis, mankinis, boardies or budgie smugglers.

The plan was to all hunker down in our bedroom, this was furthest from the ocean and French windows and was separated from the main area by folding Louvre doors. Although flimsy these gave us some protection which I would reinforce by using the mattresses from the children’s room. We would then be quite protected. There was a TV and DVD player in the room so the children would have some distraction as long as the power stayed on.

The next day we awoke to an eerie overcast still morning. It was like something out of a movie – it was just so quiet and calm just waiting in anticipation for the violence to come.

Cyclone Evan starts to pick up

Cyclone Evan starts to pick up

We had a good breakfast and grabbed a few bits of fruit and bread to take back to the room. And battened down the hatches and waited for the largest cyclone to hit Fiji in over 25 years to bear down on us.

The storm began to take shape with the winds picking up and light rain falling as a few staff members ran around making the last minute checks that all was secure. Their families had been encouraged to come into the resort to ride the storm out together.

The storm was due to hit around midday and be at its height at around 10pm that night so we were in for a long day. By around 2pm we were being battered by 120kmph winds and lashing rain which was whipping up a large swell and we could see a few large ships that were making a run out to sea. The noise was incredible; one lasting memory is the sound as it ripped through the resort, and it was only to get worse.

Each room/apartment had its own barbeque on the balcony. These were not small affairs but three burner barbeques with a lid. As the storm intensified I noticed the lid of the BBQ starting to quiver and lift. The storm and wind was exerting so much pressure on the French doors that you could visibly see them bulging. If the BBQ moved and hit the glass we were in for a whole heap of trouble.

“And where do you think you’re going?” shouted my wife, as I grabbed a couple of dressing gown cords. Before I had time to answer we both watched a BBQ go bouncing along the grass out the front of the apartment like a piece of tumble weed from a western.

“What are you standing there for?” she yelled. “Get out there and tie that BBQ down!”

The pressure was so intense that water was being pushed up through the runners and seams of the French doors and under the front door with the intensity of a leaking pipe. We tried to stem the flood with towels but it was a futile effort and eventually we all gave up.

As it grew darker we could just hear the storm pounding the resort and the constant deafening roar of the wind. We tried to keep the children busy, watching DVD’s (the power miraculously stayed on) helping mop up the water playing games and cracking poor dad jokes where possible.

As the night grew on the storm slowly subsided and we all drifted off to sleep hunkered down on the one double bed. The children were amazingly brave and handled the experience fantastically well.

The next day we awoke to a disaster zone. The power was now intermittent, the main restaurant had been smashed and was unusable, trees, fences and smaller structures were down and scattered across the resort, while sections of roofing were missing from some apartment blocks. The next door resort had had a number of apartments breached by large waves.

People milled around looking at the devastation and began, as people do in situation like this, to come together to help out and start to clean up. By evening the resort was functioning and able to feed people. Power was still intermittent but we were able to get a beer and lemonade and sit and trade tales of the storm and what a great adventure we had all had.

News.com.au report:

270km/h winds as Cyclone Evan smashes Fiji
Travel Updates
• by: Angus Thompson
• From: News Corp Australia Network
• December 18, 2012 6:45AM
CYCLONE Evan has passed Fiji, however authorities are still warning of strong winds and large swells this morning.
Fiji was battered by ferocious 270km/h winds overnight, which uprooted trees and homes, ripped roofs off buildings and caused widespread power and water outages.
More than 8000 people took refuge in evacuation centres, according to the Fiji Ministry of Information’s Facebook page, and airlines suspended flights in and out of the country.
Tourists sat tight in boarded-up hotels as Fiji entered darkness and the worst of the storm.
With winds stirring up massive swells, two ships ran aground near the entrance to Suva Harbour, The New Zealand Herald reported.