Fiji’s Strongest-Ever Cyclone Flattens Entire Villages; Death Toll Rises

By Emma O'Brien | February 22, 2016

The death toll from the strongest tropical cyclone ever to hit Fiji climbed to at least 20 as aerial surveillance of affected areas showed entire villages were obliterated as the Category-5 storm roared across the South Pacific nation at the weekend.

A state of natural disaster remains in place across Fiji as officials and aid agencies begin to survey the destruction. In the eastern part of the archipelago, 150 houses have been confirmed as destroyed, according to the United Nations’ humanitarian affairs office, and photos taken by a New Zealand air-force plane posted to Facebook by Fiji’s government showed rows of flattened houses, uprooted trees and felled power lines. Streets in Nadi, the tourism-dependent country’s travel hub, were flooded during the storm, though flights from the airport there resumed Monday.

“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,” Raijeli Nicole, Oxfam’s regional director for the Pacific, said in an e-mailed statement. “Hundreds of people will have seen their homes and livelihoods completely destroyed.”

Tropical Cyclone Winston, which the Fiji Meteorological Service classified as being at the highest level on the five- step Australian scale, brought winds of up to 220 kilometers (137 miles) an hour as it peaked over Fiji’s eastern islands late Saturday and early Sunday local time, making it the most severe cyclone on record to make landfall there, according to MetService, New Zealand’s meteorological office. While Winston has weakened to a Category 4 and has moved west of Fiji, a flood warning remains in force for some low-lying areas. Schools are closed for a week to check for damage and universities are shut until further notice.

Storm Surges

Akapusi Tuifagalele, director of Fiji’s National Disaster Management Office, confirmed 20 people had been killed as a result of Cyclone Winston, the Pacific Islands News Association reported. Three of the deaths were in Nadi, and two other people died during storm surges in the northern part of Fiji’s biggest island, Viti Levu, PINA said. Other reports indicated some of the dead were crushed by houses and debris. More than 4,000 people continued to take shelter in evacuation centers throughout the country, which has a population of about 900,000 dotted throughout more than 300 islands.

“There are Fijians out there who are without water, without a roof over their heads, without food and without essential services,” Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama said in a statement on the government’s website. “It is our duty to determine their needs and provide them with the support they need as soon as possible.”

Australia pledged A$5 million ($3.6 million) in aid to Fiji to assist in the immediate clean-up and has also offered to send military aircraft to help survey the damage, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said in an e-mailed statement. At least 1,300 Australians are registered as being in the country with the Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade, Bishop told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. on Sunday. Australia is advising all citizens to avoid traveling to Fiji.

The Fiji Red Cross was starting to ship relief supplies to stricken areas, according to Twitter posts. Ahmad Sami, the acting chief of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Fiji, described it in an online video Sunday as the nation’s “worst disaster ever.”

Winston hit outlying islands in neighboring Tonga last week before circling back toward Fiji. At the peak of its strength, the cyclone generated wind gusts of up to 325 kilometers an hour, downing weather stations in Fiji’s eastern islands, according to Emma Blades, a meteorologist in Wellington at MetService.

More than 20 people were killed in March last year as Cyclone Pam, another Category 5 storm, hit directly into Vanuatu, about 750 miles northwest of Fiji.

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