Wellington: Fijians were finally able to venture outside today after authorities lifted a curfew but much of the country remained without electricity in the wake of a ferocious cyclone that destroyed hundreds of homes. Officials were scrambling to restore services and assess damage in remote parts of the Pacific Island chain.
Winds from Cyclone Winston, which tore through Fiji over the weekend, reached 285 kilometers per hour, making it the strongest storm in the Southern Hemisphere since record-keeping began, according to the Weather Underground website.
The government imposed the curfew on Saturday night and lifted it at 5.30 am (local time) today. A 3-day declaration of a state of natural disaster remains in effect and empowers police to make arrests without warrants. In a televised address to the nation yesterday, Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama said many people had been left without power, fresh water or communications.
"The damage has been widespread, homes have been destroyed, many low-lying areas have flooded, and many people have been left stunned and confused about what to do," he said. He said that the police and military had been brought in to help with rescue operations and the general cleanup, and that government agencies were working overtime to clear roads and restore power. "This is a time of sorrow, but it will also be a time of action," Bainimarama said.
"We will stand united in the face of this disaster." Officials were trying to establish communications and road access to the hardest-hit areas, and said they would not know the full extent of the damage and injuries until then. George Dregaso of Fiji's National Disaster Management Office said that two people on Ovalau Island died when the house they were sheltering in collapsed on them, and that another man was killed on Koro Island, although it wasn't clear how he died. Authorities also said three people on the main island of Viti Levu were killed in the storm, but didn't have more details.
International tourists began fleeing cyclone-devastated Fiji as the death toll from the most powerful storm to ever hit the Pacific island nation jumped to 17. Care Australia said officials in Suva confirmed the body count had jumped steeply from six previously, amid fears the number will continue to rise as news filters in from remote areas. "Care Australia can confirm that figure of 17 dead," a Care spokesman told AFP after a briefing with disaster management officials in the Fijian capital. Severe tropical cyclone Winston, the first category five storm in Fiji, hit the Pacific nation overnight Saturday, packing wind gusts of 325 kilometres per hour, leaving a trail of destruction.
No immediate breakdown of the fatalities was available but the Fiji Broadcasting Corporation reported many were from the hard-hit west of the country and seven fishermen were missing at sea. The cyclone, the strongest ever recorded in the southern hemisphere, flattened scores of homes, crippled infrastructure and forced terrified residents to shelter in evacuation centres.
Oxfam's Pacific regional director Raijeli Nicole said the scale of the disaster would only become apparent when communications were restored with the remote communities that experienced the storm's full fury. "The Fijians are desperately trying to repair severed lines of communication, but they hold grave fears that the news waiting for them will be dire," she said. "Given the intensity of the storm and the images we have seen so far, there are strong concerns that the death toll won't stop climbing today and that hundreds of people will have seen their homes and livelihoods completely destroyed."
International tourists caught up in the disaster began to leave as flights resumed at Nadi airport after a two-day suspension. Air New Zealand confirmed one of its aircraft departed at 9.30 am (local time) and other carriers including Jetstar, Virgin Australia and Fiji Airways were also expected to begin operations again. Fiji's economy relies on tourism and the island chain is a major destination for Australians and New Zealanders.
With communications still down in many areas, Tourism Minister Faiyaz Siddiq Koya assured concerned relatives unable to contact their families that "all visitors are safe and comfortable."