Cyclone damage overwhelming, Fiji officials say
SUVA, Fiji -- A powerful cyclone destroyed more than half the houses in many villages in northern Fiji, but only one death has been reported, officials said today.
The full extent of the damage from Cyclone Tomas has yet to be determined because communications to the hardest-hit areas remain cut off and may not be restored before the weekend.
The South Pacific island nation has sent naval patrol boats laden with supplies to the northern islands that bore the full brunt of the storm, while Australian and New Zealand air force planes airlifted emergency supplies and began a second day of surveillance of the area.
A nationwide curfew was lifted Wednesday, but a state of emergency will remain in effect for 30 days in the country's northern and eastern divisions, where aid agencies say up to 130,000 people were affected by the storm.
"It is evident that wherever Tomas has struck, the damage has been overwhelming," Commodore Frank Bainimarama, Fiji's prime minister and military chief, said Wednesday as the first reports began to roll in.
The storm, packing winds of up to 130 miles per hour and gusts of up to 175 mph, first hit Fiji late Friday. It blasted through the northern Lau and Lomaiviti island groups and the northern coast of the second biggest island, Vanua Levu, before losing strength as it moved out to sea Wednesday, the nation's weather office said.
"One village on the island of Taveuni lost all its houses, but there was no loss of life," Disaster Management Office senior official Pajiliai Dobui said.
While Fiji's north suffered overwhelming damage from the powerful winds and sea surges, Dobui said preparations for the storm meant "peoples' lives were not put at risk." Only one death was reported.
Dobui said some villages in the Lau island group lost up to 60 percent of their houses, especially near the coast where powerful waves surged inland.
"The impact of the storm surges was quite devastating," made worse by high tides at the time the storm passed over the islands, he said.
On the northern island of Koro, seven of the 14 villages were badly damaged, said Julian Hennings, a spokesman for the island's Dere Bay Resort.
"Some of the houses have blown away. A lot of trees have been uprooted, some of the roads have been blocked off because the waves have picked up rocks and coral and have dumped it on the road," he said. One of four landing jetties was also severely damaged.
Tiny Cikobia Island, home to about 400 people, suffered more than three days of hammering from the cyclone, which smashed houses, uprooted trees, washed away all local boats, and scattered debris across the island.
But Dobui said "many very strong homes" built on Cikobia after earlier cyclones "withstood Cyclone Tomas and protected the lives of our villagers."
Power, water, sewage and communications were still disrupted in many northern areas, but a key airport at Labasa in northern Vanua Levu reopened for emergency supply flights.
Troops have been deployed to provide relief, including food, water and basic supplies.
A New Zealand air force Hercules airplane that surveyed some northern areas found that "quite a few villages look like they have been hit pretty hard," squadron leader Kavae Tamariki told New Zealand's Stuff news Web site.
Many homes lost their roofs and some houses were destroyed, he said, adding that not many people were seen. "We think they have fled to safety inland," he said.