Story highlights

New: Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimaram says people are left stunned and confused

Fiji reports that 17 people are dead and that damage and flooding are widespread

All schools in Fiji will stay closed for a week, disaster management agency says

CNN  — 

At least 17 people were killed in Fiji when a record-breaking storm struck the island nation Saturday night, according to a CARE Australia tweet citing Fiji’s government.

Now that Tropical Cyclone Winston has passed, the arduous tasks of cleanup and damage assessment from the most powerful storm on record in the Southern Hemisphere has begun, authorities say.

“Many people have been left stunned and confused about what to do,” Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said after the storm passed. “The damage has been widespread, homes have been destroyed, many low lying areas have been flooded,” CNN affiliate TVNZ in New Zealand reported him as saying.

There are reports of widespread power outages and thousands who left their homes for shelters.

One man posted a video from Suva, the country’s capital, of electrical power lines exploding one after another as the cyclone hit.

Officials continue to ask people to stay indoors.

“There is a great deal of debris on our roads, power lines have gone down, and iron, glass and other hazardous materials pose serious threats to our community,” Bainimarama said.

Getting roads cleared and secured will take time, he said.

A nationwide curfew remains in effect as emergency crews clear roads of downed trees and restore power.

Nadi International Airport reopened Monday morning after being close for two days. Operations there are back to normal with few cancellations, according to airport staff.

Schools, however, will be closed in Fiji for one week, the Ministry of Rural and Maritime Development and National Disaster Management said.

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 government declared a state of emergency that will be in effect for 30 days, according to the Fiji Times.

A nationwide curfew remains in effect as emergency crews clear roads of downed trees and restore power.

Breaking records

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

This map showed a forecast track for the storm from early Sunday through early Wednesday Fiji time.

Winston’s 184-mph winds smashed the previous record for a Southern Hemisphere cyclone. The old record of 178 mph was shared by Cyclone Zoe, which battered the Solomon Islands in 2002, and Cyclone Monica, which walloped Australia in 2006, according to Colorado State University hurricane expert Philip Klotzbach.

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.)

Concerns for smaller villages

“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.”

Although not hit directly, the capital, 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.”

More than 1,200 people were in evacuation centers around the country, the disaster management ministry said.

The Colonial War Memorial Hospital in Suva suffered extensive water damage, and the roof of a local hospital was blown off in the northwestern town of Ba, said Sune Gudnitz, head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs regional office for the Pacific.

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, CNN affiliate TVNZ reported.

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.

CNN’s Savannah Pratt, Gregory D’Avis Brian Walker, Zahra Ullah, Brandon Miller, Sara Mazloumsaki, Tina Burnside and Archith Seshadri contributed to this report.