Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Watching Tropical Cyclone Winston Unfurl

You ever find yourself feeling frustrated because you can't seem to find the right words to piece together your thoughts and, therefore, can't articulate your truths? Gradually, I have come to learn that this is my spirit holding my soul accountable, reminding me that I need to figure out how to ground myself- quick! When I'm not grounded enough, the power of the truth I'm trying to articulate dissipates, and becomes something I wish I had made time to be more present in. I'm realizing this while sitting in my Aunts dining room in Auckland, I have a YouTube Bob Marley playlist on and I will attempt to string together my thought process about being in New Zealand while Tropical Cyclone Winston tore through my beloved Fiji.
In just a little under a year, I had unfortunately found myself in a situation I had hoped never to be in again. Reporting on another tropical cyclone wreaking havoc in the Pacific. In March last year, Tropical Cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu, and it was absolutely devastating. Over the weekend, less than a week after Fiji became the first nation to ratify the Paris Agreement, Tropical Cyclone Winston made landfall in Fiji and became the strongest tropical cyclone ever recorded in the Southern Hemisphere.
The first of many of 'those' types of calls.
Following the chaos Tropical Cyclone Winston created from a dining room table in Wellington, I caught myself going through the motions with my colleagues and asked myself if this is what 'normal' would look like for the Pacific from now on.
I remember working on Tropical Cyclone Pam in Suva a year ago. I was out for lunch at Saffron with two of my friends. I had just ordered the Goan style coconut fish curry and was looking forward to a decent meal and a long overdue catch up with my friends. Instead, I spent the entire time glued to my laptop fielding media requests from international media agencies, updating our live blog with digital ninja, colleague, and friend, Thelma Young, whilst also navigating how to hold space for Isso Nihmei, our Coordinator on the ground in Vanuatu- who was literally sending us up to date stories of the entire ordeal. This was of course on top of making space for conversations with my colleagues on how best to respond to this very new area we were getting into whilst clearly defining our limitations as an organisation, that doesn't generally deal with these sorts of things. It was crazy. 
That Saturday, I had started working on Cyclone Pam updates from Saffron at Damodar City at around lunch and continued on to the Grand Pacific Hotel, where they had a television we could view the footage Isso was sending in from Vanuatu on CNN and BBC. I had my first call with Thelma that day, I took the Skype call out on the rocks by the ocean (it was the quietest place I could find as the GPH was filling up with happy hour patrons), in that moment, I didn't realize that it would be the first of many of those types of calls. After that call, I drove home and proceeded to work all weekend constantly fielding media enquiries, updating the blog and again navigating hard conversations about what was the best way to respond, as an organisation, to everything that was going on. I repeat, it was crazy. 

Valuable lessons.
With both Pam and Winston, because my colleagues and I weren't on the ground, we were better placed to help elevate different stories and perspectives using social media and from experience, we knew what we were capable of and what we could really commit ourselves to. 
We knew that the live blog would again be valuable and a source of solace for many people wanting credible, timely information from the ground. We knew that the request for videos and images would come flying through from the media and we needed to provide them with something. With the gift of foresight, we were able to contact three volunteers on the ground, Sina Suliano, Shanesh Prasad and George Nacewa, to live tweet their experiences using the 350 Pacific Twitter handle. We also knew what lay ahead and that pulling consecutive all- nighters, like we did with TC Pam, probably wasn't the best idea. We needed to pace ourselves and be very realistic about our combined capacities and capabilities across time zones. Most of all we knew that the organic hashtags that emerged on Twitter, #TCWInston and #CycloneWinston, meant that there would be many stories on this single event shaped by different perspectives, and this was important for people following this ordeal from afar.

Following everything on Social Media.
Following the entire ordeal via Twitter from Wellington was insane, stories of fear, distraught and confusion filled my Twitter feed, followed by more confusion, more fear, and more distraught. Then came the report backs on the extent of the damage- homes destroyed, trees uprooted, families torn apart, lives lost. The death tolls increased with more official assessments rolling in, and as a picture was painted about the true extent of damage brought about by Tropical Cyclone Winston, I couldn't help feeling a mixture of both guilt for being safe in Wellington, and helplessness that I couldn't do anything about what was going on in Fiji.

In response, I turned to Twitter and social media to again elevate voices of my fellow Fijians on the ground. In more ways than one, I felt vindicated by sharing their stories. I was struggling with feeling useless, being safe while my family and friends feared their lives back home, and was also figuring out how best to serve from afar. Further, I was wondering whether or not I had the right to speak to, or even feel, some of the trauma felt by my friends and family on the ground. 
Social media, in its own little way, helped me navigate all that. The Twitter community built around the tragedy that was/is TC Winston was a safe space for many people trying to make sense of what was going on back home. The community was built around the urgency in sharing information, grew- because of the platform's ability to connect people, and was a source of solace because of its ability to share hope and create clarity in a time of chaos.

Final Reflections. 
Personally, I feel that the ongoing narrative coming out this was ordeal was one that perfectly reflected the spirit of our people and our innate ability to smile through the pain. If anything, that characteristic about our people didn't get lost in the chaos caused by Tropical Cyclone Winston. Headline after headline painted a bleak picture of the devastation caused by #TCWinston, yet we saw news articles, tweets and Facebook posts of people picking up the pieces and rebuilding their homes with hope shining through on their faces. People who had lost everything still acknowledged their faith by expressing their gratitude to God for keeping them and their loved ones safe. Despite their loss, families dug deep to provide comfort to their neighbors, and little children throwing up peace signs in front of uprooted trees and damaged gardens. were seen all over the internet. This is the Fiji that we all know and love. This is the Fiji that is stronger than any Tropical Cyclone! 
While we are still reeling from the aftermath of this cyclone, we are coming together as a community to rebuild Fiji. Fiji communities all over the world, relief agencies, and our team of 350.org Fiji volunteers are ready to help out in whatever way they can. As a team, we will continue to rebuild our communities as well as reinforce our resilience as a nation. The relationship between climate change and severe tropical storms is becoming more and more evident. As we learn more about those connections, one thing is for sure, we will continue to identify ways to escalate our efforts in keeping climate changing fossil fuels in the ground and more importantly, we will continue to bear witness and share our frontline truths!

*Views are my own and not neccesarily of the organisation I work for.

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