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Cyclone Winston destroys villages across Fiji; Virgin, Jetstar suspend flights

Trees blow in the heavy wind in Suva, Fiji, ahead of cyclone Winston's landfall on February 20.
Kevin Winter | Getty Images
Trees blow in the heavy wind in Suva, Fiji, ahead of cyclone Winston's landfall on February 20.

Fijian officials were assessing the damage on Sunday after one of the most powerful storms recorded in the southern hemisphere tore through the archipelago, with early reports of widespread devastation in remote villages and one confirmed death.

Reports from the ground said entire villages had been wiped out by Cyclone Winston, a Category 5 tropical cyclone that packed winds of 230 kph (143 mph), with gusts of up to 325 kph (202 mph).

The storm hit Fiji late on Saturday, having changed direction at the last minute to spare the capital Suva the full force of its winds.

"Some villages have reported that all homes have been destroyed," Jone Tuiipelehaki of the United Nations Development Program tweeted late on Saturday. "Fifty homes have been reported destroyed in the Navaga village in Koro Island."

Businessman Jay Dayal, who lives near Rakiraki, on the north coast of Fiji's main island where the cyclone hit land, said the storm damage was extensive.

"I wouldn't be surprised if people are now starting to go without food," Dayal told Reuters. "It looks like a different country, it doesn't look like Fiji."

Humanitarian agencies warned Fiji may be facing a potential health crisis, mainly due to the lack of electricity. Low-lying river areas where hundreds of people live in tin sheds are also particularly vulnerable, aid workers said.

"We need electricity to ensure pumps are working and for sterilization," Raijeli Nicole, an official of aid agency Oxfam, told Reuters by telephone that flights have been scheduled on Sunday to assess damage in remote areas.

Fijian authorities confirmed that at least five people had been killed.

Power, water and communications services were cut across much of the country of almost 900,000 people and a nationwide curfew imposed by Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama on Saturday evening remained in place.

"When we are able we will provide timelines for the return of water and power," he said, adding that electricity supply to some areas had been deliberately cut to avert further damage.

Alice Clements, an official with UNICEF based in Suva, said she was extremely concerned about people in remote locations of the archipelago, which comprises around 300 islands. Fiji has a population of about 900,000 people.

"The images that we're starting to see roll in are terrifying," she told Reuters by telephone, describing visuals of flattened houses, a car on the roof of a building and a small plane nose down in debris.

Clements said she was concerned about the hundreds of people who live in low-lying river areas in tin sheds, cultivating crops in their backyard for subsistence and sale at the market.

The government declared a 30-day state of emergency, including school closures for at least a week, amid concerns of flash flooding and mudslides.

People had flocked to 758 evacuation centers on Saturday, while tourists in resorts along coast hunkered down in hotel ballrooms and conference rooms.

"We had a pretty hairy night here with the wind and the rain and we weren't even in the direct pathway of the cyclone," Anna Cowley, CARE Australia's Pacific Gender Advisor in Suva told Reuters. "I can't imagine what it was like for the people up the northern end of the island where the cyclone made landfall."

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said it had an emergency response team on standby, but that Bainimarama had not yet asked for help.

The airlines Virgin and Jetstar on Saturday suspended flights into and out of Fiji's international airport, while the national carrier suspended all flights. Fiji is a popular tourism destination for Australians, with around 340,000 people visiting each year.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said she had offered to send a P-3 Orion aircraft to carry out aerial surveillance of the outer-lying islands. About 1,200 Australians are registered as being in Fiji now, although there could be more, Foreign Minister Bishop said.

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