Image: RNZAF Air Movements staff load aid onto a C-130 bound for Fiji (RNZAF)
Australian and New Zealand military units have deployed to Fiji to assist a population recovering from the devastating effects of Tropical Cyclone Winston. The cyclone, the strongest on record to have made landfall on Fiji, struck on 20 February with winds of up to 325 km/h (200 mph), causing flooding and damaging buildings and infrastructure. Dozens of people were reported killed or missing and over 8,000 people sought shelter in evacuation centres.
A Royal New Zealand Air Force P-3K2 Orion fixed-wing aircraft began conducting aerial surveillance flights in Fiji’s northern outlying islands the day after the cyclone hit, in order to assist Fijian officials in assessing the devastation caused by the cyclone.
On 22 February, a New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) C-130 Hercules took off for the Pacific Island nation with 12 tonnes of aid supplies including tool kits, generators, water, ration packs, water containers, chainsaws and tarpaulins. The plane also carried a Joint Reconnaissance Team, comprised of NZDF personnel and staff from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Health and Fire Service, to help Fijian authorities to assess damage and to co-ordinate the New Zealand government’s disaster relief efforts.
“We hope that this contribution from New Zealand will go a long way in helping the people of Fiji,” said Air Commodore Kevin McEvoy, the Acting Commander Joint Forces New Zealand.
Also on 22 February, a Royal Australian Air Force C-17A Globemaster flew 15 personnel from the Australian Defence Force (ADF) reconnaissance and assessment team to Fiji’s capital Suvam to help determine support for relief to outlying areas as part of Joint Task Force (JTF) 635. The Joint Task Force was established as part of the ADF contribution to the response led by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade that followed a request from the Government of Fiji in the wake of the cyclone.
Before meeting with the Australian Head of Mission and Fijian officials, Joint Task Force Commander Lt Col Scott Hill said it was fortunate that the plane was able to land given the trying post-cyclone conditions. Speaking on the day of the flight, he said: “Today, JTF 635 advance elements flew from RAAF Amberley into Fiji. There was a bit of concern whether we would make it into Suva or Nadi – fortunately we beat the weather and made it into Suva.”
25 February saw two Royal Australian Navy MRH-90 helicopters depart from Naval Air Station Nowra to assist in the ADF’s humanitarian assistance mission, flying north to join another MRH-90 from 808 Squadron onboard HMAS Canberra in Brisbane, Australia, which was due to reach Fiji in the next few days.
Commander Fleet Air Arm Commodore Chris Smallhorn said the versatility of the MRH-90 Taipan helicopter would make a valuable contribution to relief and recovery efforts: “The MRH-90 and personnel from 808 Squadron who fly and maintain the aircraft are enormously adaptable in terms of the sorts of roles and missions they can execute. Humanitarian assistance is one of those tasks that can be enormously challenging and extremely rewarding as we are able to help people in need.”
He added that the Navy’s 808 Squadron and the MRH-90 are no strangers to assisting in natural disasters or providing humanitarian assistance: “The helicopter assisted in relief efforts after Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu in 2015, Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2013 and also Operation Render Safe, a mine clearing exercise removing Second World War ordnance in Papua New Guinea in 2014. The aircraft is enormously capable, and in the hands of these impressive and talented Navy officers and sailors, it will do its job well.”