More than a year after Tropical Cyclone Winston destroyed their classrooms, students at Vunikavikaloa Arya School have a reason to smile again.

The school, in Nalawa, Ra Province, Fiji, was badly damaged when the category five cyclone hit in February 2016. Tropical Cyclone Winston ripped off the school’s roof, destroying eight classrooms and damaging four adjacent teachers’ homes as it tore across the country.

The students have been learning in tents ever since. But today, thanks to Red Cross, they returned to their classrooms.

The Fiji Red Cross Society and New Zealand Red Cross partnered to rebuild the school and teachers’ quarters under the Fijian Government’s ‘Adopt a School’ initiative.

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The rebuilt and refurbished buildings were officially opened by the President of the Republic of Fiji, His Excellency, Major General (Ret’d) Jioji Konrote today.

Members of the community gathered at the school for a special ceremony to open the new classrooms.

During the ceremony, head teacher Ashishwar Prasad thanked the Red Cross family, local volunteers and community groups for their hard work, explaining how excited teachers and students were to move into the new school.

“It was the talk of our community and everyone eagerly waited for this day. The students will now study in the warmth and comfort of new classrooms as the cold season approaches,” he said.

Construction of the school started in January. The process involved a complete rebuild of the roof, framing, windows, doors and internal walls of the school, as well as repainting and reflooring.

Community volunteers worked alongside builders from New Zealand and staff from Fiji’s Ministry of Infrastructure and Transport, gaining skills they have taken back into their own communities.

Fiji Red Cross Society Director General Filipe Nainoca said the project was a great example of partnerships in action.

“Working alongside us we’ve had not only New Zealand Red Cross, but Rotary, the Ministry, the Nalawa community, parents, the Mother’s Club and of course our own volunteers. This project is a true example of the power of humanity in action.”

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Designed using the internationally-recognised Comprehensive Safe School Framework and a holistic disaster risk reduction approach, the newly-rebuilt school will be stronger and safer for students.

The school’s new steel framing is able to withstand category five cyclones, transforming the building into a resilient community shelter during future disasters.

Red Cross has also incorporated preparedness and disaster risk reduction activities in the project, helping the community become more resilient. These activities include evacuation planning, disaster simulations and first aid training.

New Zealand Red Cross President Dr Jenny McMahon said it was important that, as well as physically rebuilding the school, Red Cross helped the community become better prepared for future disasters.

“We hope that all these activities have helped to make Vunikavikaloa one of the safest schools in Fiji. It has been a long journey but a very worthwhile one, and a real team effort.” She thanked the New Zealand public whose donations made the FJD$500,000 project possible.

Tropical Cyclone Winston, the largest cyclone ever recorded to hit Fiji, left 44 people dead and affected more than 350,000 when it swept across the country in February 2016.