Makarita Racani is 75 years old but never dreamed she would live to see the sea swallow her house. Her picturesque seaside village of Nukubalavu on Fiji’s Vanua Levu island sits along miles of white sand fringed by swaying coconut trees. But of the 62 houses in this village, only three remain untouched after Tropical Cyclone Winston swept through on 20 February this year.

When two young Fiji Red Cross volunteers met Makarita four days after the cyclone, she was in a terrible state. The old woman shook and cried as she recalled the hours of terror spent sheltering in an evacuation centre as water swirled around her feet and window panes shattered in the 300kmh winds.

“We felt really down. Seeing them so affected by the cyclone was so sad,” says Asenaca Manalovo, a 26-year-old volunteer from the Savusavu branch of Fiji Red Cross. 

“We were trying to keep calm and not show how emotional we felt. We gave them some help through the training we’d had in psychological first aid (PFA) which really helped them. They were able to share the stories that they had been keeping for a very long time.”

Makarita’s daughter Lusiana likens the waves swept in by the cyclone to a tsunami. 

“The waves were coming and we were told to run to the evacuation centre. Just as we arrived at the church we looked back and saw our house washed away by the waves. All our belongings were lost, all washed away. We came away with only the clothes we wore that day,” she says.

An expert in psychological first aid, Holly Griffin is training Fiji Red Cross volunteers to provide emotional support for their communities, using lessons learned at New Zealand Red Cross during the 2011 Christchurch earthquake. So far she and her Fiji Red Cross counterpart have trained 104 volunteers in PFA, who have in turn reached more than 400 people in the community.

“When we see damaged houses we think they’re structures made of iron and wood but really they’re people’s homes. People have memories and emotions connected to these places, so when they’re damaged or destroyed, part of rebuilding is not only rebuilding the structure itself but rebuilding those emotional connections and those memories, and making new positive memories on top of what has been a negative disaster experience,” Ms Griffin says.

Ms Griffin says the volunteers’ training revolves around the “3 L’s” – looking for signs of emotional distress, listening as people share their experiences, and linking them to the appropriate services. It’s also important for the volunteers to debrief amongst themselves at the end of the day, as the job can be sad and stressful.

“Often they won’t see a tangible physical outcome of their work and it can be hard not being able to say the magic words or do anything to solve the problem. They just have to trust that this form of support is really helpful,” Ms Griffin says.

During the follow up visit by the two young Red Cross volunteers, Makarita holds tightly onto their hands, smiling at the pair she affectionately refers to as “my granddaughters”. Daughter Luisa says the psychological first aid provided by the volunteers has been invaluable.

“For myself, I feel relief because I know that I shared everything that was in my heart from the cyclone. And also my mum. She’s very happy now, and she’s very thankful to these Red Cross volunteers,” she smiles.

For volunteer Von Abbie, seeing the change in Makarita is all the reward she needs. “I can see that today they’re happy, just because of this psychosocial support, and they really appreciate that we come back to support them. They know that this is not the end and they can move on.”