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Built for resilience, Seacology projects provide critical shelter on storm-battered islands

January 14, 2021

As powerful Cyclone Yasa barreled toward Fiji just before Christmas, we waited nervously for news. Seacology has 27 projects in Fiji, and many were directly in the storm’s path. As news reports began to trickle in, we were relieved to learn that although some of our partner communities were hard-hit, the people there were safe. We also found out that we had played an unintended role as a provider of storm shelters.

The category-5 storm slammed into Vanua Levu, Fiji’s second-largest island, and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. Reporters on the ground compared the aftermath to a war zone. Hundreds of buildings were destroyed, widespread flooding in coastal areas left many others uninhabitable, and at least four people lost their lives. The Fijian government estimated that 95% of the country’s population was directly affected by the storm. Border closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic have complicated and delayed the delivery of aid.

Seacology funds long-term conservation, not disaster relief. But in recent years, some of the sturdy buildings we’ve funded have doubled as emergency centers during storms and temporary shelters for families forced from their homes. In many small villages, the community center or school built as part of a Seacology project is the newest and strongest building around. That was the case in Korolevu, a small village on the shores of Natewa Bay on Vanua Levu. The community is protecting both forest and marine areas, and built a community center with a Seacology grant backed by the Nu Skin Force For Good Foundation. It was finished just a few months ago. As Cyclone Yasa approached, many villagers fled their small wooden houses for the safety of the new, reinforced building and waited out the winds and rain there.

Much of Korolevu was damaged by the cyclone.

The community center at Korolevu is the newest and strongest building in the village.

Yasa was only the most recent in a series of massive storms to smash into Fiji. In 2016, Cyclone Winston set records as the most destructive storm in the country’s history and the first category-5 storm in the southern hemisphere. In that disaster, the community hall at Nanuca served as an evacuation center for half of the village, and the Seacology-funded school at Nukubalavu provided a temporary home to a displaced family. Tokou Village, on the island of Ovalau, just east of Vanua Levu, was also severely damaged by Cyclone Winston. Our field representative in Fiji, Pettine Simpson, told us that “the Seacology built hall was the only safe haven for most of the villagers, who stood neck-deep in saltwater from tidal surges that ravaged the village. Although the hall was half filled with water, the building stood strong and kept the people safe.”  

The kindergarten at Nukubalavu provided shelter after 2016's Cyclone Winston. It sustained some damage but withstood the storm.

Seacology funded repairs to the community hall at Tokou after the building served as a storm shelter.

 

We’ve heard similar stories from partner communities from Tonga to India. As climate change makes tropical storms more frequent and more intense, we, unfortunately, expect the trend to continue.

Long-term, of course, building safer structures is only a small step in adapting to the global climate crisis. No reinforced building is a match for rising tides, something the people of Korolevu – who have had to move their coastal village to higher ground – can attest to. Islands, which tend to have less robust infrastructure and fewer financial resources to respond to disasters, are uniquely vulnerable to the effects of climate change. This is where the other part of the Seacology equation comes into play. 

Every grant to build community infrastructure is part of a holistic project protecting ecosystems that fight climate change itself. Our partnership with the people of Korolevu also protects 900 acres of mangroves and nearly 2,000 of terrestrial forest. Every day, those ecosystems remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, and when cyclones strike, help shield vulnerable communities from the devastating force of wind and waves. 

Mangroves, which Seacology have protected and restored in Fiji, help shield communities from storms.