Fiji government declares state of natural disaster with onslaught of Cyclone Winston

A handout picture from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) shows Cyclone Winston over Fiji on Feb 20, 2016. PHOTO: EPA

SUVA/SINGAPORE - The government of Fiji has declared the South Pacific island to be in a state of natural disaster as the country braced itself for a lashing by the Category 5 Cyclone Winston, the most powerful cyclone to be faced by Fiji to date, expected on Saturday (Feb 20). The status will last for the next 30 days.

Fiji's Permanent Secretary for Rural and Maritime Development and Natural Disaster Management, Meleti Bainimarama, announced this in a Facebook post shortly after the country's Disaster Management Committee proclaimed a countrywide curfew starting at 6 pm local time (2 pm Singapore) "to restrict movement and ensure the safety of Fijians".

The Permanent Secretary reassured citizens that the government has mobilised all resources in preparation for disaster management with more than 700 evacuation centres established across the country.

"Tropical cyclone Winston has begun its assault on Fiji," said Fiji's Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama in a message to the people of Fiji.

"As a nation, we are facing an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We must stick together as a people and look after each other. Be alert and be prepared...Let us all pray for our nation, ourselves and each other," he urged.

Cyclone Winston is expected to be a very destructive force that will bring about a very significant impact on the people of the Pacific Island country, said Ms Alice Clements, Communications Officer of the United Nations Children's Emergency Fund (Unicef).

Speaking to The Straits Times by telephone from Suva, the Fijian capital on Viti Levu island, Ms Clements said the 900,000 population of Fiji, particularly those living near the coastal areas, will bear the brunt of the tropical cyclone.

"There will be storm surges from the sea, including possibly a small tsunami, and coastal communities face danger with this cyclone," Ms Clements explained.

Cyclone Winston is the strongest force to hit the South Pacific region since a cyclone of similar intensity, Cyclone Pam, hit neighbouring Vanuatu in March 2015, causing major destruction to the island state.

Ms Clements, who had lived through Cyclone Pam, said two-thirds of the 260,000 population of Vanuatu were affected by the disaster, and some communities are still recovering from the devastation to their homes and their lives.

Vulnerable communities with young children and women are in grave danger of the effects of the cyclone, said Ms Clements.

"We hope that they will take shelter on safer ground as there are fears of flash flooding affecting communities living near rivers as they overflow," Ms Clements added, saying that she could hear the howling winds winds outside her home and see debris flying all over the place as heavy rain continued to beat down on roofs.

The strong winds ranging between 230 km and 325 km an hour, felled trees in her neighbourhood, with the tin roofs of some houses torn off. Power lines were brought down by the hurricane-force winds, causing the electricity supply to be cut off at 4 pm local time (12 pm Singapore), said Ms Clements.

Ms Clements stated that UNICEF is working closely with the government of Fiji to prepare for emergencies with stocks of medical supplies, drinking water and assistance in sanitation and other technical assistance to address humanitarian needs.

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