A state of emergency has been declared in Fiji as tropical Cyclone Winston made landfall on the country’s main island, with estimated wind gusts of up to 195mph (315km/h).
The category five storm is thought to be the strongest recorded in the southern hemisphere.
An elderly man from Nabasovi, Koro Island is reported to have died as a result of the storm. Fiji Disaster Management Committee (DISMAC) officer Vatia Vasuca told FBC news the man died after a roof top fell on him.
Cyclone Winston began to make landfall on the main island of Vitu Levu after a national curfew took effect at 6pm local time. It had earlier sunk boats and caused flash flooding on the nation’s outer islands, including Vanua Levu.
It is carrying average winds of 220km/h, with gusts of up to 315km/h recorded, according to Fiji’s Meteorological Service.
The Fijian government issued a list of 758 evacuation centres across the nation of just under 900,000 people. The country’s prime minister, Frank Bainimarama, said on Saturday that the island’s evacuation centres were operational and the government was prepared to deal with a potential crisis.
“As a nation we are facing an ordeal of the most grievous kind,” he wrote. “We must stick together as a people and look after each other.”
ABC quoted the prime minister expressing concerns that some people in urban areas did not appear to have heeded the warnings about the seriousness of the threat.
Save the Children Fiji’s chief executive, Iris Low-McKenzie, said the storm had the potential to cause “catastrophic damage” across Fiji, an island nation frequented by hundreds of thousands of tourists every year. “We’re extremely concerned about the impact this will have on children, who are particularly vulnerable during emergencies,” she said.
The cyclone is likely to hit outer Fijian islands on Saturday night, making landfall just north of the capital and most populous city, Suva, early on Sunday morning. It is expected to impact every Fijian island before finally departing late on Sunday.
“This is a slow-moving storm that’s tracking an unusual pattern and has already hit Tonga twice. Alarmingly, it has intensified as it moved towards Fiji,” Low-McKenzie added. “It looks as though the storm could pass over the international airport in Nadi, which, if significant damage is caused, will make the humanitarian response all the more difficult.”
International flights to and from Fiji have been cancelled. As Fiji’s weather service warned people in the east to “expect very destructive hurricane-force winds”, Suva resident Alice Clements said the power had failed just after 5pm and she expected water supplies to be hit next.
“I have palm trees flying all around me at the moment,” said Clements, an official with a UN agency.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said the cyclone was following a path that might spare Suva the full force of its winds. Category five is the highest ranking on the hurricane wind scale.
“The cyclone has tracked further north than expected over the past 24 hours,” the UN agency said.
The Fiji Times newspaper reported some damage, including a roof being blown off one home, from some of the nation’s smaller islands to the east as the cyclone began to strike there. It said there had been a run on supermarkets and stores as people stocked up on essential supplies.
Many people were hoping the cyclone’s path would remain as forecast and thread between the islands of Vanua Levu to the north and Vitu Levu to the south, which is home to the capital Suva, so that both islands would avoid a direct hit.
Airlines operating in the region including Virgin Australia, Jetstar, Qantas and Fiji Airways all reported cancelled flights or altered timetables, with passengers told to consult their carrier for information.
Save the Children said it had stockpiled emergency supplies to ensure children could get back to school as soon as possible. “We have teams standing by to assess the storm damage, as well as teachers preparing to support children in emergency centres,” Low-McKenzie said.