Fiji cleaning up from powerful Tropical Cyclone Winston

Fiji has started to assess and clean up the damage inflicted by Tropical Cyclone Winston, the most powerful storm on record in the Southern Hemisphere, a United Nations official told CNN on Sunday.

Winds that reached 184 mph lashed the tiny island nation in the Pacific, felling trees, knocking out power and causing heavy flooding.

So far, the government has reported only one fatality, in Nabasovi, on Koro Island. The extent of injuries was not immediately known, as damage was expected to be the worst in remote villages.

A nationwide curfew remains in place as emergency crews clear roads of downed trees and restore power, said Sune Gudnitz of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Winston’s winds reached 184 mph in the hours before it made landfall about 7 p.m. Saturday (2 a.m. ET), reported the Joint Typhoon Warning Center.

‘Monster of a cyclone’

“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.”

The worst of the storm went back out to sea, but only after wreaking havoc on the tourist hot spot. It could still end up hitting the South Pacific nation even more over the coming days.

CNN meteorologist Michael Guy said Winston is expected to “keep strength as it continues on its path in open waters,” but said “it will weaken Tuesday or Wednesday once it hits cooler waters and stronger shear.”

However, relief may be in sight.

The government announced that a nationwide curfew would be lifted at 5:30 a.m. Monday local time and all civil servants were expected to return to work.

New Zealand, Australia offer aid

Photos shared on social media with the hashtag #PrayForFiji showed an idyllic paradise beset by flooded streets, roofless houses and downed palm trees.

“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. There is also considerable risk for those that live by the sea or rivers as flash flooding and river flooding could occur due to heavy rains.”

Other nations, including Australia, offered assistance.

New Zealand will assist by sending P3 Orion aircraft to conduct aerial surveillance of affected areas later Sunday, Gudnitz said.

Fears of mudslides, coastal inundation

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.

Although not hit directly, the capital of 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.”

The government announced on Twitter that more than 750 evacuation centers had been activated.

“We are well-organized and prepared,” said Eseroma Ledua, operations manager at the Fiji Red Cross. “We have prepositioned relief items sufficient for 12,000 people in our headquarters in Suva and have mobilized over 300 staff and volunteers across our 14 branches nationwide.”

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.

Mudslides are a concern.

“This is a mountainous nation, and that means any heavy rainfall will filter down to the lower elevations — meaning landslides, mudslides and flooding,” said CNN meteorologist Derek Van Dam.

The western city of Nadi, on Fiji’s main island, suffered minor wind damage but experienced extensive flooding, reported a television team from CNN affiliate TVNZ.

Fiji PM: ‘we must stick together’

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).

No matter what you call it, Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama had his own name for it: an “assault.”

“As a nation, we are facing an ordeal of the most grievous kind,” Bainimarama said. “We must stick together as a people and look after each other.”

Bainimarama, who said that the government is “thoroughly prepared to deal with this crisis,” declared a state of emergency that will be in effect for the next 30 days, according to the Fiji Times.

The National Disaster Management Office advised the curfew would be lifted at 5:30 a.m. local time Monday. Public transportation will resume and all civil servants are expected to report to work.

Record-setting winds

According to CNN meteorologist Allison Chinchar, while Winston weakened as it moved over land — as these types of storms do — it has since reintensified, and with the El Niño-warmed water serving as fuel, Winston’s eye has reformed.

Winston’s 184 mph winds smashed the previous record for a Southern Hemisphere cyclone. According to Colorado State University hurricane expert Philip Klotzbach, both Cyclone Zoe, which battered the Solomon Islands in 2002, and Cyclone Monica, which walloped Australia in 2006, previously shared the record with their estimated winds of 178 mph.

The most powerful such storm on record in any hemisphere was Hurricane Patricia, which was estimated to have hit 200 mph before petering out over southwestern Mexico in October.

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