Fiji requests aid after widespread devastation as Cyclone Winston kills 21

The badly damaged Shashtri Memorial School building in the aftermath of Cyclone Winston in the Ba district of Fiji.
The badly damaged Shashtri Memorial School building in the aftermath of Cyclone Winston in the Ba district of Fiji.PHOTO: AFP

SUVA (AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE) - The government of Fiji has called for assistance to deal with the aftermath of Cyclone Winston, which caused the death of at least 21 people and demolished entire villages, rendering hundreds of people homeless. More than 8,500 people remain in the 750 evacuation centres around the country.

Officials warn that the death toll could rise as reports trickle in from devastated remote communities as power lines were restored, facilitating communications across parts of the ravaged South Pacific island country.

"Police are still trying to get confirmation on some missing persons reports," said National Disaster Management Office director Akapusi Tuifagalele.

Oxfam's Pacific regional director Raijeli Nicole said Fijians were braced for more bad news.

"Given the intensity of the storm and the images we have seen so far, there are strong concerns that the death toll won't stop climbing today and that hundreds of people will have seen their homes and livelihoods completely destroyed," said Ms Nicole.

Cyclone Winston, the strongest ever recorded in the Southern Hemisphere, which struck on Saturday (Feb 20) evening with gusts of 325kmh, razed scores of homes, crippled infrastructure and forced terrified residents to take shelter in evacuation centres.

Aerial photographs by the New Zealand Air Force aircraft surveying the damage revealed entire villages had been flattened, with roofing and furniture strewn about by winds that were strong enough to strip leaves and branches from trees.

"The images emerging from early aerial assessments of affected areas are truly heartbreaking, leaving little doubt about the ferocity of this cyclone," said the United Nation's Fiji co-ordinator Osnat Lubrani. "It is clear from these catastrophic impacts that Fiji is facing a long road to recovery."

The UN was helping to coordinate response to the Fiji government's request for help.

Australia announcing a A$5 million (S$5 million) package, including basics such as food and drinking water. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said Canberra had also offered the use of a P-3 Orion aircraft and MRH-90 helicopters to reach outlying islands.

New Zealand also raised its aid contribution to NZ$2.2 million (S$2 million) and sent a C-130 Hercules carrying relief supplies.

"Help is already on its way to the Lomaiviti (island) group, which was in the eye of the cyclone and suffered catastrophic impacts," said Ms Lubrani. "In one village on the island of Koro, every single house and community building has been destroyed."

Koro island, which was among several islands which bore the brunt of Cyclone Winston, is located north-east of the main island of Veti Levu where the cyclone raged through Koro Island before sweeping across the narrow strait between Vanua Levu and Viti Levu.

Care Australia disaster response coordinator Sarah Boxall said up to 6,000 people were still in evacuation centres and would need basics such as food, water and medical supplies.

"The next phase is the prevention of disease because once you get a lot of stagnant water around you get dengue (fever), which has been a problem in Fiji," said Ms Boxall.

Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama has mobilised police and the military to help relief efforts, saying he was determined to get Fiji back on its feet.

"There are Fijians out there who are without water, without a roof over their heads, without food and without essential services," he said. "It is our duty to determine their needs and provide them with the support they need as soon as possible."