Suva: The death toll from Fiji's super-cyclone hit 29 on Tuesday, with officials saying the Pacific nation's recovery from the devastating storm could take months.
As aid efforts intensified, communications were established with some of the worst-hit remote communities, revealing the scale of the disaster.
"The official death toll now is 29, another eight bodies were found on the island of Koro since yesterday," said government spokesperson Ewan Perrin in an interview to Radio New Zealand. He added, "We are expecting it to rise but we're hoping it's going to rise by a very small number."
Severe tropical cyclone Winston, the most powerful storm ever recorded in the southern hemisphere, lashed the island nation overnight on 20 February, packing wind gusts of 325 kilometres (202 miles) per hour and leaving a trail of destruction.
About 8,500 people are still sheltered in evacuation centres and Perrin said some villages had hardly any buildings still standing.
"We're still trying to get people on the ground in these areas to do a detailed assessment of the damage. We're just taking it day-by day," he said. "In some places people are going to be displaced for months because they've lost everything."
According to the Fiji Broadcasting Corporation, the rising toll makes Winston the deadliest cyclone to ever hit Fiji, last being cyclone Eric in 1993.
"We haven't been able to make contact with all parts of Fiji, although with the assistance of the New Zealand Air Force we've managed to do aerial inspections across almost all of the islands," Perrin added.
"There's considerable damage of course across the top of the main island (Viti Levu) and the island of Koro, which took pretty much a direct hit."
The New Zealand Air Force photographs show entire villages flattened by the first category five storm to hit Fiji. Many homes were reduced to piles of kindling, with roofs and furniture strewn about by the wind. People were seen standing on rooftops seeking help from the passing military planes.
"The images emerging from early aerial assessments of affected areas are truly heartbreaking, leaving little doubt about the ferocity of this cyclone," said the UN's Fiji coordinator Osnat Lubrani. "It is clear from these catastrophic impacts that Fiji is facing a long road to recovery."
Power is gradually being restored in the main centres and the roads are being cleared of felled trees.
The international airport at Nadi also reopened on Monday, allowing international tourists caught up in the disaster, to