SUVA, Fiji: Fiji began a massive cleanup on Sunday after the most powerful cyclone in its history battered the Pacific island nation, killing at least one person and leaving a trail of destruction.
The category five superstorm lashed the popular tourist destination overnight Saturday, packing wind gusts approaching 300 kilometers per hour, according to the Joint Typhoon Warning Center.
The UN humanitarian agency (OCHA) confirmed one man died on Koro Island, reportedly from debris sent flying during by severe tropical cyclone Winston, the only category five storm system to ever hit Fiji.
Fijians shared pictures on social media of roofless houses, flooded streets and metal signposts bent over by the sheer force of the winds but the full extent of the destruction was not yet clear.
Save the Children Fiji chief Iris Low-McKenzie said it was too early to assess the impact on other remote islands, although unconfirmed reports said thousands of homes had been destroyed.
“I’m especially concerned about the remote communities in outlying areas that we haven’t been able to contact yet,” she said.
“Until communications are re-established and assess the damage, we won’t know the full extent of situation.”
‘Assault on Fiji’
Low-McKenzie described the terror as Winston tore through the capital Suva, which escaped the full fury of the storm unlike other communities.
“I’ve never experienced anything like this,” she said. “The noise was frightening as roofs were blown off homes and trees were ripped out by their roots.”
Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama said the storm amounted to an “assault on Fiji,” an impoverished nation of about 900,000 heavily reliant on its tourism industry.
“It is being described as one of the most powerful in recorded history… as a nation, we are facing an ordeal of the most grievous kind,” he said in a national address late Saturday.
Bainimarama declared a state of natural disaster, to remain in place for one month, and the government imposed a curfew “to ensure the safety of all Fijians.”
All schools, many of which are being used as evacuation centers, were ordered closed for one week.
Many residents spent the night huddled in evacuation centers where they were given food and water.
Falling trees cut power and blocked roads on the main island of Viti Levu, where all flights were canceled as high winds buffeted Nadi international airport.
Suva resident Danny Southcombe said while the capital escaped the brunt of the storm, it was still brought to a standstill.
“It’s not too bad here in Suva. We weren’t that badly damaged, just a few panels flew off the house,” he told AFP.
“It’s pretty calm now but when I look around all I can see is trees on the road.”
New Zealand on Sunday sent a P-3 Orion aircraft to help assess damage in remote communities but the acting head of the Red Cross’ Pacific office Ahmad Sami said an accurate gauge of the storm’s impact would take time.
“We anticipate that humanitarian needs will be very high,” he told AFP.
“This is the first time that Fiji has experienced a cyclone of this magnitude in their history, a category five, so we’re still trying to find out the figures.”
He said priorities were restoring power and repairing damaged homes, as well as maintaining drinking water supplies in more than 700 evacuation centers.
The Fiji Meteorological Office said Winston had moved out to sea about 230 kilometers west of Nadi by mid-morning Sunday, although the islands could still expect strong winds, heavy rains and powerful swells.
International airlines were expected to assess the possibility of resuming flights on Monday.