Six people were killed in Fiji when a record-breaking storm struck the island nation, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said Sunday.
Authorities believe the brunt of Tropical Cyclone Winston, which struck Saturday night, has passed. Now comes the arduous task of assessing and cleaning up the damage inflicted by the most powerful storm on record in the Southern Hemisphere.
All Fiji’s schools will be closed for one week after the storm struck the island nation, the country’s Ministry of Rural and Maritime Development and National Disaster Management said.
Winds that reached 296 kph (184 mph) lashed the tiny island nation in the Pacific, felling trees, knocking out power and causing heavy flooding, the Joint Typhoon Warning Center reported.
“Winston was a monster of a cyclone,” Fiji resident Nazeem Kasim told CNN. “I have not experienced anything like this before in my life, nor has my 60-year-old father.”
Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama declared a state of emergency that will be in effect for 30 days, according to the Fiji Times.
A nationwide curfew remains in effect as emergency crews clear roads of downed trees and restore power. The curfew is expected to be lifted at 5:30 a.m. Monday. All civil servants were expected to return to work after the curfew is lifted.
Nadi International Airport will open for passenger processing Monday morning.
CNN meteorologist Michael Guy said Winston is expected to “keep strength as it continues on its path in open waters.” But, he said, “it will weaken Tuesday or Wednesday once it hits cooler waters and stronger shear.”
Winston’s 184-mph winds smashed the previous record for a Southern Hemisphere cyclone. The old record of 178 mph was shared by Cyclone Zoe, which battered the Solomon Islands in 2002, and Cyclone Monica, which walloped Australia in 2006, according to Colorado State University hurricane expert Philip Klotzbach.
Had it occurred in the Atlantic, Winston would have been a Category 5 hurricane, but because of hemispheric nomenclature, it’s dubbed a cyclone. (In the Northwest Pacific, it would be a typhoon; all three are the same weather phenomenon.)
Concerns for smaller villages
“It is likely that smaller villages across Fiji will have suffered the most, given their infrastructures would be too weak to withstand the power of a category 5 cyclone,” said Suva resident Alice Clements, a spokeswoman for UNICEF in the Pacific.
“Families may have lost their homes and crops, therefore leaving them without shelter, food and a livelihood.”
Although not hit directly, the capital, Suva, endured damaging gale-force winds, heavy rain and power outages. Clements, who was in Suva when the storm struck, said the city experienced “destructive, howling winds, and the sound of rivets lifting from roofs a constant throughout the night.”
More than 1,200 people were in evacuation centers around the country, the disaster management ministry said.
The Colonial War Memorial Hospital in Suva suffered extensive water damage, and the roof of a local hospital was blown off in the northwestern town of Ba, said Sune Gudnitz, head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs regional office for the Pacific.
Widespread flash flooding and coastal inundation — flooding in normally dry land — “is likely as storm surges may push the sea inland several hundred meters,” the Red Cross said.
The western city of Nadi, on Fiji’s main island, suffered minor wind damage but experienced extensive flooding, CNN affiliate TVNZ reported.
“This is a mountainous nation, and that means any heavy rainfall will filter down to the lower elevations — meaning landslides, mudslides and flooding,” CNN meteorologist Derek Van Dam said.
Fiji, an archipelago collectively about the size of New Jersey, lies in the South Pacific Ocean some 1,800 miles from Australia’s east coast. (By comparison, Hawaii is about 2,500 miles from Los Angeles.)
Most of the nation’s 900,000 residents live on one of two main islands: Viti Levu or Vanua Levu.