Local family spearheads Fiji cyclone relief effort | SteamboatToday.com

Local family spearheads Fiji cyclone relief effort

Two and a half months ago, the warm waters of the South Pacific Basin gave birth to a monster.

It arose as a tropical disturbance northwest of Port Vila, Vanuatu, on Feb. 7, and through the course of the next several days, it grew in size and power as it tracked southeast, reaching Category 1 cyclone force and being assigned the name Cyclone Winston on Feb. 11.

The Lavena village school, situated on the eastern shores of Fiji's third-largest island, Taveuni, is shown here in the aftermath of Cyclone Winston — the most powerful cyclone in recorded history — which struck Fiji on Feb. 20.

By Feb. 19, Winston became the South Pacific's strongest cyclone in recorded history as it trained its crosshairs on Fiji — an island nation in Melanesia about 1,300 miles northeast of New Zealand.

Winston reached peak intensity Feb. 20 as it bore down on Fiji from the east, recording 10-minute sustained winds of 145 mph and peak wind speeds of 184 mph, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Shortly after, it slammed into Viti Levu, Fiji’s largest island, and the effects were nothing short of devastating.

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According to the Fuji Broadcasting Corporation, 44 Fijians died in the storm, and another 126 were injured.

In total, more than 9,000 homes were destroyed, and another 45,000 were damaged. In addition, 62 schools were destroyed, another 288 were damaged, and the nation's staple crops were largely wiped out.

Fiji One Television estimated total damage at $1 billion.

Help from afar

Not surprisingly, the storm — owing to its freakish strength and unusual behavior — made international headlines following its devastating strike on Fiji, but as February faded into March, thoughts of the island nation were soon usurped by the next big story.

But for one Steamboat Springs family, the story — and the people whose lives were shattered as it unfolded — went far beyond the headlines. For local resident Patrick Janin, his wife, Erika, and his children, Oskar, 17, and Estelle, 14, it was personal.

Owing to Patrick Janin's work as an entrepreneur and investor, the family has traveled the globe and, for several months in 2010, lived in Fiji while they renovated a residence they had purchased in the tiny village of Lavena, situated on the eastern shores of Fiji's third-largest island, Taveuni.

During their time there, they became close friends with many of Lavena's villagers, so when news of Winston's deadly march across the Pacific reached Steamboat, their thoughts turned immediately to the village's 347 people, more than half of whom are school-aged children.

"We lived in Fiji for six months, and we renovated a house there," Estelle said. "So, we got to know and love all the local people … so when we heard about this, we thought we should really help."

As the idea began to take hold, the Janins decided to concentrate their efforts in Lavena. Patrick described the village as being organized "very much like a feudal society" in that it is run by a chief, "and people really share the resources."

"I went there two days after the storm had hit, and … the French Army had started bringing some supplies in from the Red Cross," Patrick said. "Unfortunately … the Red Cross was bringing in clothes, and the first thing you need in an emergency is water, food and shelter … so the next day, I went and loaded my truck up with a bunch of food for the village and brought it to the chief … and that's when I really was able to see and take pictures of what had happened and was kind of like, 'Whoa! This is (going to take) way more than just a truckload of food.’"

Upon returning to Steamboat, Patrick said he discovered his children had also become interested in helping their former neighbors recover from an incalculable loss.

"When I came back, I think that's when it really hit the kids," Patrick said. "We just sat around the kitchen table and said, 'So, what are we going to do?'"

Patrick had already pledged $5,000 of his own money toward the relief effort, and his brother had matched that amount, but the family couldn't help thinking they could — and should — do more.

They established their relief fund through Generosity, a fundraising service administered by Indiegogo, almost a month ago, and though they have already raised more than $20,000 toward their $90,000 goal, they said finding traction with the campaign has been been a challenge.

"We sent out a lot of information to our friends and family, who donated, but it's been really challenging," Patrick said. "Estelle is trying to do things in school and ask people … but we're realizing how hard it is to get people's attention."

He said other locals have donated time, money, materials and expertise to the endeavor, including local videographer Devon Barker, of Barker Creative, LTD. — who produced the Janins' Indiegogo video and will return to Fiji next to month to help document the progress of relief efforts — and Lauren McLaughlin, owner of Steamboat's Colorado Embroidery, who personally donated $2,000 to the cause and will be helping the Janins make T-shirts, which will be given to donors of a certain level.

But the Janins stressed the key to the campaign’s success will be found in the collective power of a large group of people, each giving a little. As Estelle put it, “If we can get 9,000 people to give $10 each, we’ve made our goal.”

Where will the funds go?

The Janins said the money they raise will be used to rebuild local schools and hospitals and purchase solar-powered generators, which will enable the students to begin using computers and iPads as educational tools.

Specifically, they have earmarked $50,000 for construction materials and labor, $30,000 for the solar-powered generator array and $10,000 for medical equipment at Fiji hospitals.

The Janins are coordinating their relief effort with Fiji’s Taveuni Rotary Club, a 100-percent nonprofit organization dedicated to "sharing and developing projects to help our local community on Taveuni and the outer neighboring islands," according to the group's Facebook page.

Geoffrey Amos, president of the Taveuni Rotary Club, expressed thanks to both the Janins and the Steamboat Springs community.

"We are touched by the fundraising efforts that are underway in Steamboat Springs," Amos said. "It never ceases to amaze me how caring the American people can be."

To contribute to the Janin's relief effort for the people of Fiji, visit generosity.com/emergencies-fundraising/cyclone-winston-relief-for-taveuni-fiji.

To reach Jim Patterson, call 970-871-4208, email jpatterson@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @JimPatterson15