22 Feb 2016

Fiji assesses damage after cyclone Winston

12:00 pm on 22 February 2016

Fiji is this morning assessing the damage after the strongest cyclone in the country's recorded history.

The category five cyclone tore through the Fijian mainland and neighbouring smaller islands on Saturday night.

There are reports of seven deaths, but it is feared that toll will climb as Fiji's government declared a 30-day state of emergency.

Cyclone Winston barrelled into Viti Levu late on Saturday, destroying entire villages, flooding low-lying areas, and wiping out crops.

Contact has still not been made with the more remote eastern islands, which are feared to have been devastated.

Chairman of the Ba Mission Hospital, on the north of Viti Levu, Jay Dayal, said two people had died in the town, and two others were in a serious but stable condition.

He said the hospital had treated about 20 injured people, but he feared there were more who had not been able to reach medical centres.

"People living in the remote areas normally report to the health centres before coming to the hospital. Having said that, some places where a vast population has been affected there is absolutely no access to the health centres because there are power poles [that have] fallen across the road."

Five other people are reported to have died, a state of natural disaster has been declared, and most schools closed for a week.

A nationwide curfew imposed on Saturday is being lifted this morning (6.30am NZ time).

Squatter settlements vulnerable

People's Community Network national director Semiti Qalowasa works with many of Fiji's squatter settlements which are home to many of the country's poorest.

Mr Qalowasa said thousands were homeless after their flimsy homes were damaged by the cyclone.

"For the Suva area there have been 142 houses destroyed - totally destroyed. For the Western Division, 680 homes destroyed completely, while another 425 are unstable."

Mr Qalowasa said many of those who had lost their homes were now in evacuation centres.

But he said they were not likely to be open for more than a week and it was unclear what those people would do after they closed.

"These people will always get the last support so we rely most on donors from other countries."

A community broadcaster in the northern Viti Levu district of Tavua, Fane Lomani, said the cyclone decimated crops and infrastructure in the rural area.

Ms Lomani said the people lived at a subsistence level and would be needing aid very soon.

"Maybe they have a stock of little food that would just last for two days. For them to recover it might take another four to six to seven months for them to go back to a normal life. Immediate action needs to take place in terms of their food security."

People left "stunned and confused"

As the curfew was lifted, the Fiji government's focus was on restoring power and repairing essential services.

The Prime Minister, Frank Bainimarama, said contact has still not been made with the country's eastern division, more than 30-hours after Cyclone Winston passed over the Lau group of islands.

Mr Bainimarama said authorities were working overtime to restore power, water and communication across the country.

"The damage has been widespread. Homes have been destroyed. Many low-lying areas are flooded and many people have been left stunned and confused about what to do."

Frank Bainimarama described Winston as the most powerful storm in the country's recorded history, but he said the country would reclaim what it had lost.

Yet with the scale of destruction not yet known, how long that will take is far from certain.

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