Thousands evacuated as category-four cyclone smashes homes

Thousands of people fled to evacuation centres as a powerful cyclone with winds of 175 kilometres an hour smashed into Fiji on Monday. The storm was reported to generate seven metre-high waves, and shipping has been warned away from the area.


AFP - A powerful cyclone packing sustained winds of 175 kilometres (109 miles) an hour smashed into Fiji Monday, damaging homes and crops and forcing thousands of people to flee to evacuation centres.

Cyclone Tomas was classified as a category-four cyclone -- the second-most destructive on a five-point scale -- the Fiji Meteorological Service (FMS) said, with gusts that wreaked havoc across the north of the country.

There were no early reports of casualties, although officials confirmed a woman drowned over the weekend in heavy seas as the storm approached.

The cyclone was reported to be generating waves up to 7.2 metres (24 feet) high and shipping was warned to stay away from the area.

It was expected to intensify later Monday and into early Tuesday, with average wind speeds rising to 200 kilometres an hour, with gusts up to 270 kilometres an hour.

The head of Fiji's Disaster Management Office, Pajiliai Dobui, said about 5,000 people had moved into evacuation centres in the north of the country, especially on the second-largest island, Vanua Levu.

The eye of Cyclone Tomas was expected to pass east of Vanua Levu and the largest island Viti Levu, although many smaller islands would be close to its path.

"Our worry is how devastating the cyclone will be," Dobui told Fiji commercial radio, adding it was likely to be the most powerful storm in recent years.

The head official in the northern region, Inia Seruiratu, said weather conditions had worsened dramatically during the day.

"You can see trees swaying and likewise the electrical wires and cables that are running between the poles," he told state radio.

Police in the town of Labasa on Vanua Levu said people were being evacuated from low lying areas as rain swelled the local river.

Officials said communications had been lost with most of the smaller islands near the eye of the cyclone.

On Vanua Levu there were reports of damage to homes and crops, and the island was without power for most of Monday.

The cyclone was moving slowly, at about nine kilometres an hour, increasing the potential for damage.

Director of Meteorology Rajendra Prasad said Cyclone Tomas would move slowly south until Tuesday evening.

"It is expected to reach peak intensity tonight or early tomorrow, maintain it for about 12-18 hours, and undergo a very gradual weakening trend afterwards," he said.

The cyclone was expected to pass over the Lau group of islands on Tuesday, battering some with destructive hurricane force winds.

Fiji's main centres were put under curfew overnight. This was lifted during the day, except in the north, but was set to be reimposed nationwide on Monday night.

Schools were closed and most public services suspended throughout the country and were to remain shut on Tuesday.

The capital Suva was eerily quiet, with government offices, schools and many businesses closed and traffic reduced to a trickle.

Airlines cancelled international flights in and out of Fiji's international airport in the west of Viti Levu.

Some tourists left resorts in the west of Fiji, although the region is not expected to be hard hit.

Separately, the Solomon Islands, to the northwest of Fiji, escaped with less damage than expected as Cyclone Ului was downgraded to category four.

The Solomons' disaster management office reported damage to trees and crops and some homes and shelters on the coastline had been swept away by surging seas.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning