NEW: Government says nationwide curfew will be lifted at 5:30 a.m. Monday
NEW: Officials report one fatality and extensive damage
At least one person was killed when the most powerful storm on record in the Southern Hemisphere struck Fiji, a United Nations official told CNN.
Winds that reached 296 kph (184 mph) lashed the tiny island nation in the Pacific, felling trees, knocking out power and causing heavy flooding, the Joint Typhoon Warning Center reported.
“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 is believed to have passed, and Fiji has started to assess and clean up the damage inflicted by the storm, Sune Gudnitz, the head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Regional Office for the Pacific, told CNN.
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.
The Colonial War Memorial Hospital in Fiji’s capital, Suva, suffered extensive water damage and the roof of a local hospital was blown off in the northwestern town of Ba, Gudnitz said.
Fiji Prime Minister Frank 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.
A nationwide curfew remains in place as emergency crews clear roads of downed trees and restore power.
‘Monster of a cyclone’
The storm wreaked havoc on the tourist hot spot and could still end up hitting the South Pacific nation even more over the coming days.
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.
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.”
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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
Mudslides are also 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.
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.)
CNN’s Brandon Miller, Sara Mazloumsaki, Archith Seshadri and Tina Burnside contributed to this report.