The classrooms at Vunikavikaloa Arya School are filled with noise – but it’s not excited students causing the commotion. It’s Red Cross volunteers and local villagers, hard at work with hammers, saws and drills.

The school, in Fiji’s Ra province, was badly damaged when Tropical Cyclone Winston tore across the country in February 2016. For the past year, children at Vunikavikaloa have been learning in tents in a back field.

Soon, they will be able to return to their classrooms for the first time since the cyclone. Fiji Red Cross and New Zealand Red Cross are working together to rebuild the school under the Government’s Adopt a School programme.

Vunikavikaloa Arya School head teacher Asishwar Prasad remembers the mess the teachers found the day after the cyclone swept through.

“It was in a state we can’t explain in words,” he says. “For two or three nights I didn’t sleep, wondering how we were going to manage.”

Building back better

A year on, the school is starting to look normal again. Builders from New Zealand, Fiji Red Cross volunteers, members of the local community and the Ministry of Works have together been working on the building.

The rebuild, scheduled to take three months, will not just replace what was there before. Instead, Red Cross is planning to build back better.

New Zealand Red Cross construction project manager Tom Newton says the new steel structure of the school will ensure it is more secure in future.

“It’s been designed to withstand category five cyclones by the standards put out by the Fiji ministry. It can sustain wind gusts of up to 70 metres per second, which is pretty insane – that’s about 250kmh.”

This new design has helped reassure the school’s students and the surrounding community that they will be safe.

“The children are talking, saying ‘we are definitely going to have stronger classrooms that can survive a cyclone’,” Mr Prasad says.

Strengthening the community

The rebuild doesn’t stop at the physical structures either. Red Cross has provided psychosocial support in the community, including a visit from Sesame Street’s Elmo, to help people cope with the emotional impact of the disaster.

Volunteers from the surrounding villages have been helping to rebuild the school, gaining valuable experience and training. And when the school building is completed, Red Cross will share disaster management and preparedness education within the community, helping them respond to future cyclones.

Strengthening the community is just as important as strengthening the building, New Zealand Red Cross recovery project coordinator Holly Griffin says.

“Recovery is not just about rebuilding buildings – it’s about people. So we’re not only rebuilding the school building, we’re supporting the Nalawa community here to recover.”

The support will make a huge difference to the 230 children who attend Vunikavikaloa, Mr Prasad says.

“We are looking forward to opening the new school. Thanks to the people in New Zealand who donated to the New Zealand Red Cross Winston appeal, which has enabled this work to happen.”