Distressed family tell Anna Leask of their night of terror as Winston battered their home.

Three weeks ago, Salesh Kumar took out a loan of $5000 to replace the roof on his Rakiraki home.

Mr Kumar had decided it was time to do some maintenance in case there was a cyclone. He even paid extra to have special hurricane-proof screws fitted.

The screws were no match for Cyclone Winston, but that was the last thing on Mr Kumar's mind as he lay over his disabled mother, Vitya Wati, to protect her from the falling roof last Saturday.

As the cyclone hit the town in the north of Viti Levu, Fiji's biggest island, Mr Kumar, his wife Premila, daughter Priyashna, 17, and his mother took shelter in a bedroom. They soon realised they were not safe and as the roof started to lift they ran further inside.

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Mrs Wati, 76, is bedridden so Mr Kumar carried her.

"I pushed my wife and daughter under a bed and then I just covered my mum. I lay over her and tried to put a sheet of wood over our heads," he told the Herald.

"Things kept falling, the roof came down on to me and I thought me and my mum were not going to make it."

Mrs Kumar and her daughter clung to each other under the bed, where four other people were also sheltering, as rain filled the house. They lay in the water, cold and shivering, for three hours before it was safe to come out.

Their wrecked home after the cyclone. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Their wrecked home after the cyclone. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Mr Kumar said it was only "by the mercy of God" that he and his mother were alive. Looking at his home you can understand why. The roof has been peeled off over most of the house and the walls are warped. You can see where the ceiling caved in over Mr Kumar and his mother, and dirty water still pools on the floor where his wife and daughter lay.

"It was terrifying," he said.

"But we are alive. That is the most important thing."

Mrs Kumar said the cyclone had affected her deeply. "It still comes into my mind, all the time. I woke up the other night and I had tears running down my face. I was crying in my sleep."

She cries again then, looking at her kitchen, the spilled and ruined food, the broken plates and the personal items wet, muddy and smashed to pieces on the floor.

"It was absolutely horrifying. The bed was lifting up off the floor and I was trying to hold it. I said 'God, if I am to die, please save my daughter'. You could see the wind going round and round. Usually in a cyclone it comes from one direction but this one was coming from everywhere. We are so scared that next time it happens we will not be alive at the end."

The mother-of-two (the couple's elder daughter is away at university) is now worried about the future. "I work at the school as a clerk and the school was blown away. I told my boss that if there was any job at all that needed to be done I would do it ... we need the money," she said. "It will cost so much to fix this."

On top of fixing the house, Priyashna also lost all of her school books which will be costly to replace. She is a top student and Mrs Kumar said she was devastated to have lost all of her text books.

For now, the family is focused on the simple things - drying their clothes before the next rain so they have clean things to wear; collecting as much rain water as they can; salvaging every edible morsel of food from their mangled kitchen and making sure Mrs Wati's health does not suffer.

"I was just telling my friend the other day that after so many years, thing are settling down in Fiji and life is getting easier. And then, this," said Mr Kumar. "At the end of it, we are alive ... we will bounce back, we have to."

Yesterday the death toll from Cyclone Winston stood at 44, with some hard-hit remote areas still to be checked.

How to help

Red Cross: redcross.org.nz
Tear Fund: tearfund.org.nz
World Vision: worldvision.org.nz
Unicef: unicef.org.nz.