Naziah Ali / AFP / Getty Images

Fiji hit by record-breaking cyclone

Downed power lines and flooding are hampering relief efforts from the storm that killed at least 18 people

Downed power lines and flooding are hampering relief efforts in Fiji after one of the most powerful storms recorded in the southern hemisphere tore through the Pacific island nation, flattening remote villages and killing at least 18 people.

On Monday, officials were scrambling to restore services and assess damage caused on Saturday by tropical cylone Winston in remote parts of the Pacific Island chain.

Harsh winds and torrential rains tore up hundreds of homes and cut power, water and communications links across the nation of about 900,000 people, although Suva, the capital, escaped the brunt after the storm changed direction at the last minute. 

Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama declared a 30-day state of emergency, with schools ordered to shut and a nationwide curfew extended until Monday morning.

"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.

The archipelago of about 300 islands — about 100 are inhabited — hit late on Saturday by the tropical cyclone, which packed winds of 143 miles per hour that gusted up to 202 miles per hour.

Getting emergency supplies to the group's far-flung islands and remote communities was the government's top priority said Ewan Perrin, Fiji's permanent secretary for communications. 

"The logistics of getting supplies and equipment to remote communities is difficult," he said. "Some have lost their jetties and it's uncertain if airstrips are able to be landed on."

Perrin said authorities on Monday were sending a vessel to Koro Island filled with medical supplies, food and water. He said crews on the boat would build temporary shelters for those people on the island whose homes had been destroyed.

Perrin said the electricity network across Fiji remained patchy, and in some cases power had been deliberately cut to prevent further damage. He said clean water was also a challenge, and people were being asked to boil their water, treat it with chemicals or drink bottled water.

Phone communications had been rapidly restored in many areas but in other areas the damage was severe and would take longer to fix, he said.

He said Fijians were taking the disaster in stride.

"The people here are fairly resilient and they're accustomed to these things happening," he said. "Most are going about their business or helping clean up. There's been a very well-coordinated disaster response and we're deploying quickly."

Perrin said most of the people who died in the cyclone were hit by flying debris or were in buildings which collapsed. A handful of people had also been hospitalized with severe injuries, he said.

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.

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 he died.

About 80 percent of the nation's population was without regular power, although about one-third of them were able to get some electricity from generators, said Dregaso. Landlines throughout Fiji were down, but most mobile networks were working.

Dregaso said 483 people evacuated their homes and were staying in 32 emergency shelters. He said he expected the number of evacuees to rise.

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

People flocked to 758 evacuation centers on Saturday, while tourists hunkered down in hotel ballrooms and conference rooms in coastal areas.

"The images that we're starting to see roll in are terrifying," Alice Clements, a UNICEF official based in Suva said by telephone, describing visuals of a car on a building roof and a small plane nose down in debris.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who offered to send a P-3 Orion aircraft to help in the relief effort, said about 1,200 Australians were registered as being in Fiji, although there could be many more.

Australians are frequent travelers to the archipelago, which gets around 340,000 tourists each year. Airlines Virgin and Jetstar on Saturday suspended flights to Fiji, and the national carrier suspended all flights.

Wire services

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