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27 February 2024

Cyclone Winston: 50 homes in one Fiji village crumble [video]

By Agencies

* Storm among the most powerful recorded in southern hemisphere
* Casualties could rise as more remote spots report damage
* Five killed, 50 homes in single village destroyed

Fiji began a massive clean-up 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 super-storm lashed the popular tourist destination overnight Saturday, packing wind gusts approaching 300km 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 centres, were ordered closed for one week.

Many residents spent the night huddled in evacuation centres 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 cancelled 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 centres.

The Fiji Meteorological Office said Winston had moved out to sea about 230km west of Nadi by mid-morning Sunday, although the islands could still expect strong winds, heavy rains and powerful swells.
International airlines are expected to assess the possibility of resuming flights on Monday.

Earlier reports

- "This mega storm has the potential to cause catastrophic damage across Fiji, an island nation frequented by hundreds of thousands of holiday-goers every year," said Iris Low-McKenzie, CEO of Save the Children Fiji.

- Fiji was on Saturday struck by its most powerful ever cyclone, according to reports, as the island nation battened down the hatches with a blanket curfew and mass evacuations. The category five super-storm hit the main island of Viti Levu overnight, according to the Joint Typhoon Warning Center, with flights cancelled and evacuation centres activated earlier in the day.

Fiji warned residents to brace for an onslaught Saturday as a category five super-storm bears down on the Pacific island nation, with international flights cancelled and evacuation centres activated.

"As a nation, we are facing an ordeal of the most grievous kind," Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama said in a national address.

"We must stick together as a people and look after each other. Be alert and be prepared."

Severe tropical cylone Winston, with average winds of 220 kilometres (136 miles) per hour and gusts of up to 315 kilometres per hour, was forecast to hit the main island Viti Levu overnight Saturday, according to the Fiji meteorological office.

The storm brushed by the more northerly island of Vanua Levu on Saturday afternoon, with unconfirmed reports of trees felled and roofs blown off houses.

"I've never seen such a strong cyclone as this one in 60 years," local resident Zalim Hussein told AFP by phone.

"This is a monster cyclone, without doubt the strongest we've ever experienced. We're all very scared and hope it goes away quickly."

National Disaster Management director Akapusi Tuifagalele told the Fijilive website that 758 evacuation centres had been prepared in the nation of about 900,000.

Fiji Airways, Virgin Australia and Jetstar all cancelled flights to the holiday hotspot, which is a popular destination for Australians and New Zealanders.

"Our team of meteorologists and safety experts have been closely monitoring Tropical Cyclone Winston and have determined that conditions are not suitable for flying in or out of Nadi, Fiji," Virgin Australia said in a statement.

The government imposed a nation-wide curfew on Saturday night, with Bainimarama saying conditions would be too dangerous for residents to venture outside.

"I ask parents to be especially careful of the young and the elderly," he said.

"Do not allow anyone to go outside during the storm itself. The threat of being hit by flying debris is extremely high."

Winston has been moving around the South Pacific for a week, skirting around Vanuatu and Tonga and has previously taken aim at Fiji before veering away.

Cyclones are common in the South Pacific and their impact is notoriously difficult to predict, with major storms capable of causing major devastation but sometimes blowing themselves out with relatively little damage.

The UN humanitarian agency UNOCHA said it was ready to support the disaster management office if required.

Winston had the potential to bring "destructive winds, heavy rains, dangerous storm surge and a high risk of both flash and river flooding", UNOCHA said in a statement.