Learning the Word for Hurricane – Claire McCoy ‘20

There was a funeral in the village on that grey Saturday, when the humidity had finally broken into rain and the cyclone warning had been issued. As the procession passed outside our house, the high voices of the choir drifted in through window louvres and the Church bell clanked distantly. Relatives from my family’s clan who had come for the funeral sat cross-legged on the bamboo mats of our living room floor. They filled the space in a horseshoe, four rows deep, with a bowl of kava at the center of the room. A few men passed out the drink in polished half-coconut shell bowls to one guest at a time.

I occupied a space in the back row with the other women, leaning against the cool cement wall and peeling green oranges as chasers for the earthy taste of kava. When my foot began to fall asleep from sitting cross-legged, they would give me discreet permission to stretch out a leg. We sat for hours, chatting softly and pondering the coming storm in an English peppered with words from my limited Fijian vocabulary. I learned that cakilaba, pronounced “thangilamba,” means hurricane.

As the afternoon wore on, the rain came down harder and relatives drifted out. I said goodbye to the woman who’d sat next to me, instructing me to call her Nei for Aunt and passing me more than my fair share of green orange slices. I thought of the text message I’d received from my volunteer coordinator the day before – stock up on canned food and have your emergency backpack ready. A large tropical cyclone has materialized to the South and Fiji is in its path. It may fizzle out before reaching us, but keep your radios tuned to the news.

We kept our radio on until the power went out. Remembering what I’d been told about cyclone preparedness during a brief volunteer training just two weeks ago, I slipped away to my room and began tucking essentials into a bag in case we would need to evacuate. My room, this house and my host family did not yet feel entirely familiar, but I was shaken by the thought of what little sense of home I did feel being reduced to the contents of a backpack. I packed to the unsettling banging of my Tou (host father) and eldest brother Hove, who were hammering sheets of corrugated tin over our louvered windows. When they had finished, the house was as dark as the dusk falling outside. Rain pounded ever louder on the metal of the roof.

I would remember the intensity of that night’s rain, evoked in later downpours after days of sweltering humidity. Those rains would eventually tamp down the dusty paths of the village, the air damp and green-smelling on my walk home from school. Those rains, drumming on the roof while I took my afternoon bucket shower, would cleanse and exhilarate. But tonight I couldn’t hear myself think. Tonight my host sister Sisi stayed in my bed, sleeping fitfully, knees and elbows akimbo, twelve years old but suddenly younger. I, too, felt vulnerable and couldn’t find sleep for the deafening rain and the howl of the wind, punctuated every time I came close to drifting off by the heart-stopping crash of a breadfruit falling onto the roof from a nearby tree.

The morning dawned in silence, making me wonder whether the night’s turmoil was a dream. But when I looked outside, the village was strewn with breadfruit and fallen banana trees. My Tou said “Luvengu, let’s go for a walk”, and he showed me where our television antenna had landed on a bush and the section of tin that had flown off the kitchen roof. Avoiding downed power lines and tree branches, we made our way to a hilltop at the edge of the village where we could see the river. Normally clear and slow enough for children to play in after school, the river had swollen to twice its size overnight. It rushed along slick and smooth-surfaced, branches and debris swirling in the muddy brown current.

Cell service and running water were restored within a few days, and the winding dirt road connecting our mountain village to the nearest town soon became passable. But we remained without electricity, which kept school closed for the week. It was only after someone brought a newspaper back from town that I understood how lucky we’d been. Severe Tropical Cyclone Winston was the not only the most powerful to have ever hit Fiji, but the strongest storm ever recorded in the Southern Hemisphere. Winds had reached up to 185 mph where the Category 5 storm’s impact had been strongest, in the outer islands and along the main island’s Northeastern coast. Entire villages had been flattened and thousands of people were displaced from their homes. A 30-day state of emergency was declared. The school I was volunteering in went unscathed, and I looked at its sturdy blue buildings with new appreciation when classes resumed the next week. The easily repairable damages to my village seemed suddenly trivial, simply a mess to be cleaned up, compared to the unimaginable devastation in so much of the country.

My experience of the storm was unforgettably loud and jarring, but ultimately harmless. After nearly two weeks without power, we’d gotten used to eating dinner by candle light. There was something peaceful about saying grace and sharing our meal in the dim orange flicker, although washing the dishes afterward proved less romantic. One night after dinner, the kitchen was lit up for an instant by a flash I assumed to be lightning. But it returned, sustained this time a moment too long, accompanied by an electric buzzing. Then the village went up in cheers. At first in fits then all at once, our whole house was illuminated. Shouts of “Emeni!” (Amen!) and scattered applause carried through the night as all our neighbors’ windows flickered then glowed.

Claire McCoy is a junior at Smith College.
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