Survivor of deadly cyclone speaks out about how climate change may bring stronger storms to the Pacific 

Illustration by Ard Su

By Josefa Babitu and NextGenRadio Staff

When he was 11 years old, Sunia Digova Lesivou survived a cyclone that killed his 3-year-old brother. That was more than 40 years ago. The recent cyclone that hit Fiji on Jan. 11, reminds him that climate change will bring even stronger storms.  

Listen to Sunia Digova Lesivou’s story

Lesivou along with his mother and brother boarded the MV Makogai on the Fijian island of Vatou-Lele on Dec. 10, 1973. They were headed 235 miles away to the capital Suva so Lesivou could attend school.  

“What I experienced and what I met on that fateful day has traumatized my life,” the retired primary school teacher said.

Almost 50 years ago, Sunia Digova Lesivou survived an offshore cyclone when the ship he was on capsized in the Pacific. Photo by Josefa Babitu

The weather was fine when they boarded the boat, but he said that was just the calm before the storm.  But then Cyclone Lottie, a Category 1 tropical cyclone moved in. Soon, the wind was blowing, rain was falling and the boat rocked violently in the waves for over two hours. 

Then at 11 a.m., their wooden ship capsized. And Lesivou heard his mother yell out. 

“All I felt was a strong, strong blow on my jaws, which resulted in my unconsciousness,” he said. “When I regained my consciousness… the bottom of the boat was pushing my head down. I had to struggle again from inside the boat to struggle to come out.

Lesivou didn’t have a life raft and swam through the stormy water for more than 30 minutes before coming across a 20-liter kerosene drum, which he clung to. He eventually came across a sack of coconuts, which were even more buoyant and helped save his life.

“After about three hours, I met my mother who was swimming and carrying my dead brother,” he said. “She was trying her best to carry him.”

He said they wanted to bury his brother on land, rather than leaving his body to be buried at the sea. 

Thirty people died during the MV Makogai wreck and the survivors were never rescued. They had to swim to shore. 

Another boat also capsized during the cyclone, killing 54 people, making Cyclone Lottie one of the region’s deadliest storms.

Lesivou has since written a memoir about the experience and regularly educates people about boat safety and how climate change will bring more cyclones to the Pacific.

“Most of the nights when I slept… I used to dream about what happened. Even now, after 48 (years) sometimes I can still feel it.”

Sunia Digova Lesivou

Left: Sunia Digova Lesivou shares his story in the memoir, Na Veitawasei Vakaciriloloma Kei Na Qalo Bula. Photo by Josefa Babitu

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By Josefa Babitu

Josefa Babitu is a senior journalism and politics major at the University of the South Pacific. The 21-year-old student journalist aspires to be a communication professional in the future. For the time being, he has written a number of articles for media agencies, both local and overseas. He currently works for CDAC Network as a communication officer based at the Fiji NDMO for the current cyclone season. Apart from focusing on his career, Josefa loves to hang out with his friends, reading and socializing.

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