I've gotten a number of notes from friends back at home asking me about what we do and how we manage the threat of powerful cyclones/hurricanes in a developing country where, not surprisingly, the infrastructure is a bit more fragile than elsewhere.
It's such a bizarre and surreal experience attempting to prepare for an approaching disaster if, in fact, that's what Cyclone Tomas turns out to be.
In Fiji, there may be an elevated rush at the markets but certainly nothing like the craziness I've seen in America where people seem to feel that if they run out of canned figs, the world will come crashing down. What I see here is a less organised chaos but it still very much feels like some flavour of chaos. What's driving the chaos isn't the approaching storm as much as it seems to be the disparate sources of information about the approaching storm. (I'm a broken record over this, I know. Deal with it.)
When news of this tropical storm hit the airwaves yesterday, the first "official" reaction I saw/heard was to close all the schools. This struck me as like cooking a cylinder of propane in a lovo. The action feels as if it has absolutely no redeemable value other than clogging the streets with massive traffic, causing some mild panic and essentially taking away from the very purpose of early response; namely PREPARATION. People will always have more difficulty getting things done when their children also need to be watched at the same time. I prefer my children to be safely in a classroom while I attempt to manage pending doom but that's just me. If we only had hours to act, then I would understand this decision but that was not the case here.
This is not meant to be a crucifixion of government actions either but I have every right to question any decision when the safety of my kids is at stake...didn't anyone notice how the streets were crowded with children aimlessly walking everywhere after the call for schools to close? That's not cool.
So here we are...it's after 12 noon on Saturday and the latest report suggests that this strengthening and seemingly massive storm will actually hit on Monday, more than 72 hours after the Ministry of Education ordered schools to be shut. The emergency plans have now been "activated" and people are left to source their news and weather updates from whatever avenue they feel is the most trustworthy. There is NO single resource to rely on whatsoever. The MET.gov.fj website feels so poorly developed and managed that it may literally be responsible for people dying should the storm's potential threat become a reality. I don't believe the actual MET office is useless but I do believe a responsible communications plan, like for every other disaster which has threatened Fiji as long as I've lived here, seems blatantly absent from the tool chest of response activity.
Anyway...it is what it is.
Preparing for an approaching cyclone is an interesting experience compared to REACTING to a tsunami or earthquake warning. With the latter events, there's very little time to plan anything (depending on the circumstances, of course). In the six years I lived in Japan, I became used to earthquakes and decided after the first one that I hated them entirely, mostly because there was absolutely nothing that you could do to control pending disaster once it begins. Running under a door jam doesn't really count either.
So far today, we've gone shopping and stocked our kitchen to last us for a while if need be and I've also provisioned enough beer as well. No...I don't sit there getting drunk as a storm like this rages outside but I do have some exaggerated fear of NOT having beer. For a clean cyclone taste, by the way, try VONU. It is now my preferred beverage when faced with a pending disaster.
If this storm does hit, we'll most certainly lose power so knowing what we have in the freezer and the refrigerator is a good idea. I can't realistically barbeque during a raging storm either so whatever we have has to be cooked inside. Later today or tomorrow, we'll fill up a bathtub with water and also fill up empty jugs as well, to plan for the certain water cuts we'll face. There is NO telling how quickly water service can be restored. We have candles and matches and batteries on hand and we'll scatter them around the house to use when needed. By tomorrow, I'll put the storm shutters over the doors and windows.
Incidentally, Fiji is in the midst of a typhoid outbreak. This storm couldn't have chosen a worse time to visit. If we lose water and/or electricity, the threat of an expanding typhoid outbreak is all but certain. Totally sucks.
On the communications front, my Blackberry has always done a great job of keeping me connected to my family back home in the states as well as friends domestically. Twitter has also been a great tool for providing updates both inwards as well as outwards. I try to conserve laptop battery usage as much as possible when a storm hits but as far as staying connected, I've always had success using Vodafone's Flashnet service.
We eventually reach a certain point where we just sit and wait for the power to go out. Phones, computers, the PSP and iPods are charged up in the meantime and various board games are put out for when stuff gets really desperate. I like to beat my 10 year old son's ass at chess. Every now and then, he takes a game from me, too.
Cyclone Mick, which tore through Suva in December, was only a category one storm and exposed some really poor design flaws in the windows of our house. The base of certain windows acted as water captures so when they filled up after just an hour of heavy rain, they overflowed onto the floor of the master bedroom. I can only assume and expect the same will happen tomorrow so I'll take a closer look at what I might be able to rig up to prevent that from happening. My yard also has a tendency to completely fill up with water, making the house appear as if we live on a lake. It's quite beautiful for like 5 minutes, then it makes me nervous as the water rises.
It's never advisable to venture outside in a cyclone but I usually do at some point to ensure that nothing is falling apart around me. Drainage at Suva Point, which sits in a very low area next to the ocean, is really poor and once heavy rain begins, the streets flood. Up to this point, we've been lucky enough to avoid anything really bad but again, we haven't experienced storms over a category one just yet. At this point, Tomas is like a Hell's Angel riding on the horizon, ready to start bashing.
In short, storms like this one are extremely scary for me. At nighttime, when the cyclone's rage and shake everything, it's pitch-black both inside and outside. Although I trust the structure we live in, I never trust the unknowns of nature and crazy wind gusts. I suppose it would be better if I was alone but with three kids, everything takes on a different dynamic.
On a business note, I hate the way these storms paralyze Fiji for extended days on end. I cannot blame anyone for this, of course, but the interruptions are so detrimental towards running a company, that it becomes very challenging to recover from them quickly. Large clients, in particular, seem oblivious to the impact of these storms and the delays they inevitably cause to their projects.
Cyclones suck. I hope Tomas avoids us completely. In the meantime, we'll do what we can to prepare for him and hopefully, learn some new lessons for next time. As a natural cynic, I don't think that will happen but that doesn't stop me from hoping. Stay safe, Fiji...