In the wake of Winston

Winston is the strongest tropical cyclone on record to hit Fiji.

Watch footage of the damage to Naboutolu and Nokonoko villages captured by the group’s drone.

The Category 5 cyclone, which struck in February, brought with it a national record wind gust of 306 kilometres per hour.

Now, months on, the nation’s state of emergency has lifted, and the 350,000 Fijians who were in the storm’s path are living with the aftermath.

Just how the community can recover and rebuild was the focus of a trip to Fiji by staff and students from Victoria’s School of Architecture.

Led by Professor Regan Potangaroa, a structural engineer and post-disaster reconstruction expert, the group worked alongside the Shelter Cluster headed by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

“One of our village surveys showed more than 60 percent of families had a significant decrease in their quality of life, and more than 25 percent of people felt lonely, most or all of the time, despite being in a village and being surrounded by relatives and family,” says Regan.

“These are very telling statistics, because on the surface the people are fine—they seem to be helping one another and working together well.”

Master of Architecture students Emily Cayford, Jessica Hulme, Suchita Jain and Anthony Mak travelled with Regan as part of their final-year thesis research.

“The time we spent in Fiji was illuminating. Anyone outside Fiji could easily believe that everything has returned to normal,” says Emily.

“Many people were still living in tents. The dangerously low level of education surrounding building codes means buildings are generally built back to the same standard. The next tropical cyclone will bring them down again.”

The group noted many emerging issues with housing, says Jessica.

“Land tenure and informal settlements was an issue. Quality materials were often unaffordable locally—timber was cheaper to import from New Zealand. There was also concern that villages closer to the highway were more accessible and therefore received more attention, aid and shelter.

“There are so many stakeholders involved in the process, and to effectively provide communities with housing that they both need and want proves difficult.”

Anthony says the trip provided insight into what engineers and architects were doing to help those most vulnerable.

“A group of structural engineers had volunteered to assess school buildings that required reconstruction or strengthening, but architects had not demonstrated a comparable level of initiative, nor implemented strategies for the necessary provision of shelters.

“Architects have a privileged role being able to explore ways in which the wellbeing and safety of people can be sustained and improved through space.”

Post-disaster reconstruction is a long and complex process, says Regan, who has travelled to more than 20 countries to help in the wake of natural disasters and conflict zones.

“Working in the field is dynamic and ever-changing—it’s very different from what you might see on television or read in the newspaper.

“I think the students learnt the significance of the profession they have taken up, and it’s an experience they’ll carry into their design for a long time.”