Brett Phibbs

Cyclone Winston: Chicken coop saved her, now it's her jail

AS  the cyclone bore down on his hilltop home Seru Pepeli had to make the hardest decision of his life.

He needed to get his six children to safety. The roof was lifting and sheets of tin were flying into the sky faster than they could take them down. The walls were shaking and as the family of 12 hunkered down in their shack-like home he knew they had to make a run for it.

But not all of them could go. His mother-in-law, Queenie Baleiwai, cannot walk. There was no way she would make it down the steep journey from the house to the evacuation centre at the bottom of the hill.

There was no time to carry her - and even if there were, the heavy rain was starting to wash out the clay driveway.

They had to leave the elderly disabled woman behind. She would never survive in the two-room house which was decimated by a cyclone in 2013 as well, so they did the only thing they could think of.

They cleared out the 25 chickens from a small, cramped shed beside the house and moved Mrs Baleiwai in.

Days after the cyclone that is where she remains, living in a chicken coop at the top of a hill.

She has run out of food and water and the only supplies keeping her alive are the morsels her family can take up to her from their temporary accommodation at the local school.

Mr Pepeli spoke to the Herald about his family's plight, begging authorities to help get his ailing mother-in-law to safety.

"My home is absolutely damaged. My mother-in-law is living in a chicken house. We cleared all the crap out and put down rugs but it's still a chicken shed," he said.

"We need a wheelchair to get her down ... we have told the police that we need help, that she needs to come out, but they have not helped us yet."

The Pepeli house is simple. Painted mint green, it stands at the top of a shared driveway. In the 2013 cyclone two of the rooms were destroyed and the family had not been able to rebuild them before Winston hit.

So 12 people, including six children, were sharing two small rooms with one outside toilet.

Post Winston the house has no roof or windows and everything the family owned was lost to either Winston or the floods that raged down the hill after the rain. "Everything is just destroyed," Mr Pepeli said.

"When the cyclone was about to hit on Saturday we all stayed together in one corner. My whole family was there. Then we realised it was not safe.

"We ran and we ran and we ran. The wind was blowing and the rain kept coming and coming. We were so frightened, we were panicking. I had to get my kids out so we went to the school."

Mr Pepeli said he was devastated his beloved mother-in-law was living in a shed that was built to house animals.

But there was no other choice.

"I am not very happy. What can I do?" he said.

In the shed Mrs Baleiwai sits on the floor next to her granddaughter Litia, whose turn it is to sit with the old woman and look after her. Blankets dry in the searing sun on the shed's tin roof. The only furniture inside is a chest of drawers and an old television - which is useless because there is still no electricity in the area.

"We come up every day to see her," Mr Pepeli's brother Sima tells the Herald.

"We bring food, water. But now there is no food. It is very hard."

An aid organisation worker told the Herald it was very difficult to assess who needed help and where in Fiji.

Aid workers started arriving on the island only on Monday and were working around the clock to assess the damage and what people needed in terms of supplies.

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