“Hurricane” Hal Needham is a storm surge scientist who specializes in data-driven storm surge analysis. He is the founder and president of Marine Weather and Climate.

A Bigger Perspective on Tropical Cyclone Winston and a Lesson on Building For Resiliency

  • Mar 3, 2016

Tropical Cyclone Winston ravaged the islands of Fiji 12 days ago, pummeling the islands with category-5 winds. The death toll from this storm has reached 42, according to a Monday blog post from Jeff Masters and Bob Henson. Their blog post also provides early estimates of economic losses.

While this is the deadliest cyclone in the modern history of the South Pacific, a cyclone more than 400 years ago killed 1,000-2,000 people in the Cook Islands (De Scally 2008), presumably from a massive storm surge. While comparison to the Cook Islands cyclone does not make it any easier for those recovering from Winston, it does provide perspective that human losses in the region have been even greater than this before. Technological advances, and the excellent work by the Fijian Government to warn people of Winston's approach, likely reduced potential fatalities considerably.

gif of cyclone winston swirling

In addition to loss of life and immediate economic losses, cyclones in this region often inflict long-term impacts related to loss of food and water supplies, as it is difficult for islands to replenish these resources after a salt-water inundation (Needham et al. 2015).

The power of social media to connect people after a disaster became evident after I posted photos last week providing evidence of a 10 foot (3m) storm surge in coastal Fiji. I implored blog readers to help identify the locations of the photos, which would enable us to get an early read of the surge inundation.

tree damage from cyclone winston

Sharp contrasts in tree trunk color indicates the height of extreme water levels at this location in coastal Fiji.

Soon after my post, I received a message from Brooke Langston, a former Peace Corps volunteer in the Ministry of Fijian Affairs from 2013-2014. Brooke made contact with Fijians who were familiar with the locations of the photos, and I soon found out that the photos with the high water marks were from a village on the island of Vanua Balavu, the third largest island in the Lau archipelago.

The center of Winston's circulation tracked close to Vanua Balavu, and the satellite image above shows that Winston's eyewall was pummeling the island with vicious winds from the southeast when the photo was taken (TC circulation in Southern Hemisphere is clockwise).

John O’Leary provided a link to a Fijian government site that provided lat and lon values of many air photos. Through these sources, we are able to form a better picture of storm surge inundation.

Despite Winston's catastrophic losses, not all news coming from Fiji is bad. A Radio Australia article emerged discussing how the 164 homes built by Peter Drysdale in Koroipita survived the cyclone with little damage. According to Drysdale, the use of steel strapping coils and roofing screws provide stronger construction to endure cyclonic winds.

We can read more about the fascinating story of how Drysdale built simple, but sturdy, homes for many of Fiji’s poorest in this story by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Drysdale claims that these buildings can be constructed in five days and only cost $13,000 Australian dollars ($9,414 U.S. dollars) to construct ($13,000 was quote from most recent article; the article from 2015 quoted $12,000....but hey, inflation is real).

This story provides a few important take-home messages. One lesson learned is that adapting construction for violent cyclones and the bigger picture of climate change does not have to be cost prohibitive. Another lesson is that it is clear Drysdale constructed these homes to withstand powerful cyclones, and when they were tested, they stood.

This should cause us to ask if the homes in our coastal communities are constructed with powerful cyclones in mind, or if we consider such events too rare to consider. Such questions will become important due to climate change along our coasts.

The 2015 ABC article reveals that many people interested in Peter's homes are climate change refugees moving from the country to the city, or even coming from other island nations, like Kiribati. Clearly this innovative project should stand as a model of a practical project to improve coastal resiliency in areas prone to tropical cyclone/hurricane strikes.