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article imageDeath toll rises as Fiji cleans up after 'strongest ever' cyclone

By Joshua Kuku (AFP)     Feb 20, 2016 in Environment

Fiji began a massive clean-up on Sunday after the most powerful cyclone in the Pacific island nation's history left a trail of destruction, killing five people and crippling vital infrastructure.

The category five super-storm lashed the popular tourist destination overnight Saturday, packing wind gusts approaching 300 kilometres (185 miles) per hour, according to the Joint Typhoon Warning Center.

Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama and the Red Cross said five people were killed.

Officials said one man died on Koro Island, reportedly from debris sent flying during severe tropical cyclone Winston, the first-ever storm system to hit Fiji measuring a maximum category five.

Aid agencies admitted they simply had no idea about the full extent of the destruction, as Fijians shared pictures on social media of roofless houses, flooded streets and metal signposts bent over by the wild winds.

Toppled trees lie on a road in Tamavua  Suva  after the most powerful cyclone in Fiji's history...
Toppled trees lie on a road in Tamavua, Suva, after the most powerful cyclone in Fiji's history battered the Pacific island nation, on February 21, 2016
-, UNICEF Pacific/AFP

Save the Children Fiji chief Iris Low-McKenzie said it was too early to assess the impact on outlying islands, although unconfirmed reports said thousands of homes had been destroyed and entire villages flattened.

"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 we assess the damage, we won't know the full extent of the situation."

-'Assault on Fiji'-

Fiji began a massive clean-up on February 21  2016  after the most powerful cyclone in its history b...
Fiji began a massive clean-up on February 21, 2016, after the most powerful cyclone in its history battered the Pacific island nation, killing at least one person and leaving a trail of destruction
UNICEF Pacific, UNICEF Pacific/AFP

The capital Suva escaped the full fury of the storm but Low-McKenzie said it was still a terrifying experience.

"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."

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".

Residents shop at a market in the Fijian town of Nausori as they prepare for Cyclone Winston in this...
Residents shop at a market in the Fijian town of Nausori as they prepare for Cyclone Winston in this photo supplied by Kris Parsad @Angry_Kpra on February 20, 2016
Kris Parsad, @Angry_Kpra/AFP

All schools, many of which are being used as evacuation centres, were ordered closed for one week.

Many residents spent the night huddled in the shelters, 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 pretty calm now but when I look around all I can see is trees on the road," he told AFP.

The military cancelled all leave and mobilised troops for the relief effort.

New Zealand led the international response, sending P-3 Orion aircraft to help assess damage in remote communities, while Australia's Foreign Minister Julie Bishop offered to do the same.

The acting head of the Red Cross's 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 UN humanitarian agency OCHA said hospitals had been badly damaged in Suva and Ba township as Winston "cut a path of destruction across Fiji's islands".

The Fiji Meteorological Office said the cyclone had moved out to sea about 230 kilometres west of Nadi by mid-morning Sunday, although the islands could still expect strong winds, heavy rains and powerful swells.

International airline Virgin Australia is set to resume flights from Australia Monday, when the curfew is also set to be lifted.

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