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National Service of Remembrance and Thanksgiving on the Anniversary of Tropical Cyclone Winston

February 20, 2017       Albert Park, Suva

The Honourable Prime Minister, Rear Admiral (Ret’d) J.V. Bainimarama and Mrs. Bainimarama;
The Chief Justice, The Honourable Anthony Gates;
Madam Speaker, Honourable Dr. Jiko Luveni;
Honourable Cabinet Ministers;
The Honourable Leader of the Opposition;
Honourable Members of Parliament;
The Australian Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Honourable Ms. Concetta Fierranti-Wells;
Your Excellencies, members of the Diplomatic Corps;
Our religious leaders and other distinguished Guests;
My fellow Fijians.

Ni sa Bula Vinaka, Namaste, Asalaam Alaykum, Ni Hao, Noa’ia ‘e Mauri and a very Good Morning to you all.

We come together as a nation today in a solemn act of faith – a service of remembrance and thanksgiving to commemorate the first anniversary of one of the most traumatic days in Fijian history.

A year ago today, Tropical Cyclone Winston bore down on our islands with unprecedented fury. And no Fijian who witnessed its impact will ever forget the experience. 

It was the biggest storm ever to make landfall in the southern hemisphere. And at its peak on February 20, 2016, winds gusting to more than 300 kilometres an hour ravaged much of our nation.  Slamming first into the northern Lau Group, then making its way across the Koro Sea - devastating the islands in its path - before lashing northern Viti Levu and southern Vanua Levu and finally the Yasawas as it moved away from Fiji.

It is hard to imagine being in the direct path of Winston at its height. But those who were, tell of the most frightening experience of their lives.  The gradually building roar of the storm. The lethal debris. Leaves and branches at first, then whole trees and all manner of objects flying through the air.  And the terrifying sensation of homes, schools and other places of shelter giving way, of roofs peeling off and leaving large numbers of our people at the mercy of the elements. Exposed, soaked to the bone and staring death in the face.

Just over three years before, Cyclone Evan had spared us any deaths at all. But not Winston. It was simply too intense.  And for far too many families, the pain of losing their homes and places of learning and worship was matched by the pain of losing a loved one. Killed by falling roofs and walls, flying debris or the raging torrent that accompanied the roaring winds.

When the skies finally cleared, we counted the material cost. 40,000 homes damaged or destroyed and hundreds of schools and other public infrastructure laid waste. Winston left us with a total damage bill of close to US two-billion dollars or nearly a third of our Gross Domestic Product. And 12 months on, we are still as a nation dealing with the aftermath.

But while things can be rebuilt or replaced, our loved ones are gone forever. Names and faces unknown to many Fijians but not to those they left behind. And today we gather in the presence of many of their families and friends to remember those who Winston took from us. A roll call of the fallen in one of the worst disasters – perhaps the worst - that nature has ever inflicted on our people.

They were mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, aunties, uncles, cousins and friends. Ordinary Fijians who are the backbone of our nation. Now gone but who we are determined never to forget.

You have already heard their names and where they perished. And today, as your head of state, I welcome their families and friends to our capital, in the name of every Fijian. Along with many others from the affected areas, some of whom were injured, many of whom were left homeless. Plus hundreds of our school children who also join us for this commemoration. And are living symbols of our future and the continuity of Fijian life.

We have people here from as far away as Koro, Vanuabalavu and Ra.  Vinaka vakalevu for making the journey to Suva and for being with us on this very special day.

For the families of those who died, I have a simple message for each of you on behalf of the entire nation – a message of sympathy and love. As one, we embrace you. As one, we extend to you our hand of comfort. And as well as our deepest condolences, we also salute you for your own courage, fortitude and resilience.

You have all heard the name of your loved one read out in this historic place – the ceremonial heart of our beloved nation. They are no longer unknown. We have all been privileged today to hear their names.  And to stand shoulder to shoulder with you in your own grief and sense of loss on this most painful of anniversaries.

Of one thing you can be certain. The person you loved is known to Almighty God.  They rest in his loving arms. In his eternal care. And together, we also ask God to grant you his blessing and comfort.

As your President, I also make the following undertaking on behalf of our nation to you and to every Fijian.

Fiji intends to do everything in its power to persuade the global community to tackle the root cause of the extreme weather events such as Winston that are causing so much pain for our own people and the citizens of other vulnerable nations around the world.

We must get the community of nations to continue reducing the carbon emissions that are causing global warming. This is a fight that we must win. Our entire way of life is at stake. And that is why Fiji is taking a leadership role in the world to persuade the industrial nations to act decisively before it is too late.

As you know, our Honourable Prime Minister has been given the task of moving the current global climate negotiations forward. As incoming President of COP 23, the Prime Minister will preside over the deliberations of nearly 200 countries when they again gather in Bonn, Germany, in November. His job is to keep them committed to the carbon emission reduction targets contained in the Paris Agreement of 2015.

My Fellow Fijians, let there be no doubt about the magnitude of the task that Fiji has been given. It is easily the biggest responsibility the world has ever asked us to take on as a people. The prayers and best wishes of every Fijian go with the Honourable Prime Minister as he embarks on this mission.

And none more so than the prayers and best wishes of every Fijian who was affected by Cyclone Winston, and especially the families of those who died. 

Friends, today is a day of remembrance. A day of great emotion. But it is also a day of thanksgiving. Of expressing our gratitude to Almighty God for sparing much of our nation and especially those areas on which our economy depends. As you all know, we were extremely fortunate that our main tourism areas were out of Winston’s direct path. Along with many areas of industrial activity and, of course, some of our biggest population centres.

Today is also a day of celebration – a celebration of the Fijian spirit of caring and the many friends we have in the world. It is a wonderful reflection on our nation that in their hour of need, those who suffered were not alone. Their fellow Fijians were there to extend a helping hand.

Many ordinary people outside the cyclone zone loaded up their cars with relief supplies and drove to the affected areas. Our disciplined forces, disaster management teams, civil society and the business community quickly swung into action. And every arm of government was mobilised to deal with the crisis, including the Help for Homes and Adopt a School Initiatives that continue to this day.

As a nation, we also found that we were not alone, as ships and aircraft bearing relief supplies and personnel descended on Fiji from near and far. HMAS Canberra from Australia. HMNZS Canterbury from New Zealand. Other naval vessels from New Caledonia and Tonga. Planes from China, India, the United Arab Emirates and elsewhere. The world showing that it also cared. Not only governments but countless numbers of ordinary people. Children sending their pocket money. Corporations contributing in cash or in kind.

Hundreds of foreign military personnel and aid workers poured into the affected areas to assist Fijians in the effort to clean up and rebuild. And in the process, many thousands of friendships were forged.  The friendly smiles and “can do” attitude of these wonderful men and women lifting our spirits and strengthening Fiji’s engagement with the world.

To the diplomatic representatives who are with us today, please again convey to your governments the gratitude of the Fijian people for coming to our assistance in our hour of need. Just as the families of those who died know they are not alone, we as a nation know we are not alone. And the solidarity with Fiji that the world demonstrated in the wake of Winston is something that we will always treasure.

And so, my fellow Fijians, let us rededicate ourselves today before Almighty God to the Fijian ideal – of being a caring, loving nation. Of reaching out to each other and especially the vulnerable, the very young, the elderly, the sick and the disadvantaged. Of reaching out to the world to assist others in need through our UN Peacekeeping and civilian volunteers. Of leading the fight against climate change on behalf of all 7.5 billion of our fellow citizens on the planet. Of preserving our pristine surroundings not only for ourselves but the entire world and for future generations. And of continuing to welcome the world to Fiji to enjoy our hospitality and the unique Fijian spirit.

May Almighty God continue to bless the families and friends of those who died from Winston, the injured and the homeless.  May he continue to bless each and every one of us.  And may he continue to bless our beloved Fiji.

Vinaka Vakalevu, Dhanyavaad, Sukria, Xie-Xie, Fai’eksia and Thank You.