NEW: At least 28 killed in cyclone that struck Fiji on Saturday
Cayla and her family barricaded themselves in a cupboard with a mattress for hours
Their house's brick cement walls collapsed and the roof ripped off
As the winds howled, ripping off roofs and uprooting trees, Cayla Tikaram hid in a cupboard with her family.
They were in the midst of Cyclone Winston, the most powerful storm on record in the Southern Hemisphere, as it tore through Fiji, killing at least 28 people Saturday.
The power in Rakiraki, on the northern side of Fiji’s main island Viti Levu, had long gone out. In the dark but with her phone in hand, Cayla live tweeted. She says she did so because receiving messages from her friends overseas helped her get through the terrifying experience.
“The house is leaking and everyone’s crying. Planning where to hide when the entire roof comes off,” she wrote in one tweet.
“Everyone’s safe & in the cupboard with a mattress against us. No roof, barely any house, but alive so far. Thank God. #TCWinston,” said another.
The next tweet showed what the storm did to her house: “Kitchen and living room now mainly wall-less and no roof.”
Cayla says it was the scariest experience of her life.
“I was so scared, I was crying and my hands were shaking,” she told CNN over the phone Monday. The family had gotten access to power a few hours before, which was still going in and out.
“It was really nice to talk to people who weren’t in the middle of the cyclone,” Cayla said. “My friends were saying ‘It’s alright, keep going.’ Also with the intermittent access you didn’t hear anything for hours. These were friends outside of Fiji, in New Zealand, the States, Australia. I don’t think anyone in Fiji had power.”
Her mother Jean Tikaram, a retired teacher who runs a honey farm, described the moment they realized the roof was going to go.
“Something hit me in the back and it was a piece of the roof,” she said. “It’d suddenly taken off. We made a split decision to run to a bedroom at the other end of the house and we hid in the cupboard.”
“There was my husband, two girls and our little dog and we all huddled there. It was a very small cupboard. So we ripped the double mattress off the bed to put it in front of the cupboard. We thought the whole house was going to go. We stayed there for probably about five or six hours and you could hear all the crashing and the banging,” she said.
As daylight broke, the extent of the damage was revealed.
“It’s just nothing in sight. The tin food and water supplies are all gone,” Jean Tikaram said. Although they had stocked up to prepare for the cyclone, the storm had taken all their supplies.
While the family was safe, their house had been ripped to shreds. Their neighbors’ house fared even worse.
The family was relatively fortunate because their home was made of solid brick and cement unlike many of their neighbors who live in tin homes.
“We don’t really know where to go at this point,” Jean Tikaram said. “The first day or two we were a little bit shell-shocked and we weren’t thinking further than get some water. Today, we got some water and got a bit of tinned fish so we’re feeling elated. We’ve had a bath and we’ve brushed our teeth, so we’re feeling amazing.”
“It’s a bit of a funny thing from a mental perspective one has got to get to terms with. Possibly tomorrow we’re going to make a plan of where to go. We can’t stay here. With the rain, the last bit of the ceiling is going to cave in.”
Despite the devastation, the mother said the Fijian people are pulling together. “Some of our neighbors had gone down to a stream and came up to give us water despite not having much for themselves.”
But she worries that clean up and recovery efforts will take a long time. “A lot of the community aren’t very financially strong in the first place,” she said.