SYDNEY/WELLINGTON – Fiji began a massive cleanup on Monday after one of the most powerful storms recorded in the Southern Hemisphere tore through the Pacific island nation, flattening remote villages, cutting off communications and killing at least 10 people.
Aid agencies warned of a widespread health crisis, particularly in low-lying areas of the country where thousands of the country’s 900,000 people live in tin shacks, after crops were wiped out and freshwater supplies blocked.
Many people remained hunkered down in hundreds of evacuation centers across the country, where they had headed before tropical Cyclone Winston hit late Saturday, packing winds of up to 325 kph (200 mph).
“Many people have been left stunned and confused about what to do,” Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said after declaring a 30-day state of emergency.
“This is a time of sorrow but it will also be a time of action … we will reclaim what we have lost.”
The 10 fatalities were all along the western coast and were caused mainly by flying debris and drowning in storm surges, the Fiji Broadcasting Corporation said, citing authorities. There were also fears for seven fishermen believed to be missing at sea.
A curfew in place for more than 36 hours was lifted early on Monday, allowing the Fijian military to ramp up efforts to reach the more remote parts of the archipelago of about 300 islands.
“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,” said Oxfam Pacific Regional Director Raijeli Nicole.
“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.”
Aerial footage of villages taken by the Royal New Zealand Air Force and posted on the Fijian government’s official website of the outlying islands showed whole villages flattened and flooded.
The Australian and New Zealand government authorized the release of emergency aid supplies held in the Fijian capital of Suva, which escaped the brunt of the Category 5 storm.
“These stores will ensure communities have access to safe drinking water and basic hygiene for those who have lost their houses or are displaced,” Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said in a statement.
Bishop added that the high level of preparation by the Fijian government had helped keep the death toll low.
Virgin Australia said it would resume flights on Monday, while Jetstar said it Most of Fiji was without electricity Sunday and residents had been told to stay inside for a second straight night as officials scrambled to restore services and assess damage in the wake of a ferocious cyclone.
Winds from Cyclone Winston, which tore through the Pacific Island chain over the weekend, reached 285 kph (177 mph), making it the strongest storm in the Southern Hemisphere since record-keeping began, according to the Weather Underground website.
Although the weather calmed Sunday, a curfew was extended through early Monday and police were empowered to make arrests without a warrant to ensure order.
In a televised address to the nation Sunday, Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama said many people had been left without power, fresh water or communications.
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.
Authorities also said three people on the main island of Viti Levu were killed in the storm, but didn’t have more details.
Tourism Minister Faiyaz Siddiq Koya said that all tourists in Fiji were safe and that there was no significant damage to the majority of hotels on the main island. Fiji is a popular tourist destination, known for its beach resorts and scuba diving.
Cyclone Winston hit Fiji on Saturday and moved westward overnight along the northern coast of Viti Levu. Fiji’s capital, Suva, located in the southern part of the main island, was not directly in the cyclone’s path and avoided the worst of its destructive power.
“Truth be told, we’ve gotten off pretty lightly here in the capital,” said Alice Clements, a spokeswoman for UNICEF. “It was still a pretty awful night. You could hear crashing trees and power lines, and popping rivets as roofs got lifted and ripped out.”
She said there was foliage everywhere that looked like it had been put through a blender.
About 80 percent of the nation’s 900,000 people were without regular power, although about one-third of them were able to get some electricity from generators, said Dregaso, the disaster office official. Landlines throughout Fiji were down, but most mobile networks were working.
Dregaso said there were 483 people who had evacuated from their homes and were staying in 32 emergency shelters. He said he expected the number of evacuees to rise.
Authorities were urging people to remain indoors as they cleared fallen trees and power lines. They said that all schools would be closed for a week to allow time for the cleanup, and that three universities would be closed until further notice.
The government declared a 30-day state of natural disaster, giving extra powers to police to arrest people without a warrant.
The government said the curfew would end at 5:30 a.m. Monday.
“The curfew has been imposed to protect lives and protect property,” Bainimarama said in his address.
Clements, the UNICEF spokeswoman, said there was particular concern for people on the northern part of the main island and on smaller islands. She said that many would have lost their homes and livelihoods, and that some tourist resorts on the outer islands may have been damaged.
The airport reopened Sunday to allow emergency flights, Dregaso said, after many flights had been canceled the day before.