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Sarah Jane Weaver
Matelita Lewatu holds her 9-month-old niece, Hinaraurea Tuahivaa Toqabale, outside the Lami 1st Ward meetinghouse — where her family is staying because their home was destroyed by Cyclone Winston on Feb. 20.

LAMI TOWN, Fiji — Just three days after Cyclone Winston made landfall here, Seruwaia Bari Tanumi showed a visitor the remnants of what was once her home.

“Some of my plates are gone,” she said. “All of my cups are gone. All of my clothes are wet.”

She pulled a large plastic tarp off a bookshelf in the corner of what used to be her bedroom. The water-soaked books were ruined. Many of the family’s limited belongings were strewn down the hillside.

But Seruwaia insisted she is lucky.

As Cyclone Winston approached Fiji, the mother took her large family and spent the night at a meetinghouse belonging to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

As the wind and rain intensified, Seruwaia’s son came to report that the roof had blown off the family's home.

The next morning she returned to her house to discover everything was lost. Then, on the foundation of what was once her home, she “knelt down and prayed to the Lord and said, ‘Thank you for the life you gave to me.’ Everyone in my family was safe.”

Seruwaia and her family are 1 of 3 families staying at the Lami 1st Ward, Suva Fiji North Stake. Their bishop told the group they can stay at the building for one week before making other plans.

The LDS Church has been providing food and clean water for the families through the church's fast offering program, said Vesau Tamanivula, a counselor in the bishopric.

“We can’t leave them,” he said. “We have to take care of them.”

Meroni Naivila Ross lives just down the hill from Seruwaia and her family. She was home with her husband, Barney Ross, and their 3-year-old daughter, Veniana Leba, when the storm struck.

“It was very, very muddy and the rain was coming,” she said. When strong winds took her roof, she and her family ran to a neighbor’s home.

As the sun rose in the morning, the family walked to the LDS meetinghouse.

“The bishop was here,” she recalled. “We dried our clothes.”

During the storm, Meroni and Barney moved their mattress and clothes to a back room in their home. As the storm intensified, water ran into the home through that room — destroying everything they own.

Three days after the storm, Meroni was working to salvage what she could from her home. Little Veniana played outside. The sound of hammers hitting nails echoed through the small community.

It seemed everyone here was beginning to rebuild.

Local leaders of the LDS Church in Fiji are still assessing needs and working to help the many church members, like Seruwaia and Meroni, who lost homes. Information is slowly coming from Fiji’s outer islands hit hardest by Cyclone Winston, which struck Fiji with up to 175-mile-per-hour winds Saturday evening.

The powerful category 5 storm left dozens dead, knocked out power, destroyed clean water sources and crops, and flattened entire villages across the Pacific island nation. Power remained off in Suva Tuesday, one day after mandatory curfews in the city were lifted and businesses began to reopen.

At the LDS Church offices in Suva, members and missionaries worked Tuesday to assemble hygiene kits requested by the Ministry of Health. The kits, purchased with local goods, were put on boats to Gau and the Lau island group.

In coming days, local members and missionaries will also compile school sanitation kits for UNICEF, said Frank Stanford, the LDS Church’s country welfare manager for Fiji and Tuvalu.

Transportation to the outer islands in Fiji remains a problem because the cyclone destroyed jetties. Ferries, which cannot dock or unload, are still not running. A group of LDS youth brought in by boat from the outer islands of Fiji to participate in the Suva Fiji Temple youth cultural celebration Saturday evening remained at the church’s primary school campus Tuesday as organizers worked to get them home.

LDS Church leaders have instructed bishops to carry food with them as they check on members in the area’s most heavily impacted by the storm, said Stanford.

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And in Fiji, where high diabetes rates required an amputation every 12 hours, the church is looking for specific ways to assist storm victims with disabilities, he added.

Back in Lami Town, Seruwaia, who has been a member of the LDS Church since 1995, used clean hose water to bath her 4-week-old grandson and then sat on the floor and watched her daughter dress the infant.

She hopes to visit the rededicated Suva Fiji Temple this week, she said.

And then, speaking of her home and the things she lost, she simply added: “We can put things back.”

sarah@deseretnews.com @SJW_ChurchNews