OPINION: The damage wrought by Cyclone Evan as it tracked destructively across Samoa, Fiji and countless smaller islands between this week is some of the worst seen in decades.
While the loss of life in the storm appears at this point to be light, the ruin brought to land, crops, infrastructure and buildings has been heavy. It will be many days before the full extent of the damage is known. Many towns and villages are still cut off and reports from outer islands have been sparse. But the Samoan Government has already estimated its loss at $150 million.
If past events are anything to go by, that is likely to be an underestimate. Not only have current crops been lost, but the loss and damage to roads, buildings and other infrastructure are likely to impede recovery for months and perhaps years to come. If the $150 million is accurate it is a savage blow to a country that has still not entirely recovered from the more limited damage caused by the tsunami in 2009. It is a very large chunk out of an economy whose annual production is less than $650 million.
In Samoa, the capital Apia was particularly badly hit when a river running through the town flooded catastrophically. In Fiji, the capital Suva was not so battered, but the commercial centre Nadi, Lautoka and other towns and resorts on the west of the main island Viti Levu have been pounded.
According to one resident, although there appeared to be no loss of life in Fiji the storm was stronger than Cyclone Bebe, which pummelled the islands in 1972, and is likely to set a new benchmark in destructiveness. Like Samoa, Fiji is not rich and its feeble economy has not been helped by self-inflicted political damage caused by a succession of military coups over the last 25 years.
Both countries have already called on New Zealand for assistance. It is already clear they they will not only need help with aid to cope with the immediate aftermath, but also support, financial and otherwise, to enable them to recover in the longer term. New Zealand has already provided nearly $1 million in emergency financial aid.
In the coming days and weeks, more cash aid will no doubt be needed, but also, perhaps more importantly, advice and expertise. With our experience in dealing with disaster, most notably in recent times the earthquakes, New Zealand is well placed to provide the islands with the assistance they will need and should do so generously.
So far as Fiji is concerned, the disaster coincides with moves toward a thawing of relations with both New Zealand and Australia as the country makes hesitant but apparently committed steps toward the restoration of elected civilian government. A new permanent high commissioner is expected to be announced soon.
It has become increasingly clear that government by a self-imposed and ill-equipped military autocrat has been an enormous setback for Fiji's economy. New Zealand has no interest in having an economic basketcase on its back doorstep and registered its displeasure at the military government by imposing highly selective sanctions, aimed at hurting military bosses while sparing the general population any pain, along with nudging the current leadership towards surrendering power to the ballot box.
Disaster relief will not of course be dependent on this continuing but it does provide an opportunity for contact between the two countries on a more cordial footing.
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