, SUVA, Dec 18 – Tropical Cyclone Evan left a swathe of destruction across Fiji Tuesday after battering the Pacific nation for more than 12 hours, destroying homes, flooding rivers and stranding thousands of tourists.
Despite the damage, officials reported no fatalities as the storm headed out to sea early Tuesday and was downgraded a notch to category three.
Western parts of the main island Viti Levu bore the brunt of the cyclone’s fury overnight, with the Fiji Times describing the township of Lautoka as a “war zone”.
Witnesses said entire houses were blown away by the ferocious winds, leaving stunned residents to clean up debris from empty lots after they returned from evacuation centres.
“The destruction this cyclone has caused is beyond words. Not one house has been spared here,” Lautoka resident Melaia Waisele told AFP.
The information ministry said bridges were submerged by swollen rivers, high winds toppled power lines and roads were closed by landslides and debris.
Almost 8,500 locals sheltered from the cyclone in evacuation centres, while thousands of international tourists, almost 3,000 of them relocated from outlying islands for their own safety, rode out the storm in Viti Levu’s resorts.
Fairfax New Zealand journalist Marc Hinton, who was on vacation in Fiji when the cyclone hit, said hurricane force winds lashed his resort for more than 12 hours.
“Everyone was hunkered down, the winds were so strong last night you couldn’t even open your doors, it was over 200 kilometres per hour (125 mph),” he told the Dominion Post newspaper.
However, fears that Cyclone Evan would rival the deadly force of Cyclone Kina, which killed 23 people when it swept through Fiji in 1993, proved unfounded, largely due to extensive planning as the storm advanced.
The government said there were only 10 reports of minor injuries and people had heeded warnings to evacuate early.
Neighbouring Samoa had no advance notice when Evan pummelled it late last week and officials there said Tuesday the official death toll had risen to five, with up to 10 people still missing.
The missing were aboard four fishing boats that failed to return to port last Friday and a New Zealand-led aerial search was called off Tuesday after finding no sign of the men.
“We are confident that the area has been thoroughly covered in difficult circumstances,” Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand spokesman Neville Blakemore said.
“This is obviously a tragic outcome for the families of the men involved and our thoughts are with them.”
Samoa’s Disaster Management Office (DMO) said almost 5,000 people were still in evacuation centres and power remained off in much of the country.
DMO spokeswoman Filomena Nelson said the damage caused by the storm, estimated by the government to cost $130 million, was more extensive than when a tsunami hit the country in 2009, killing 143 people.
“While the cost in lives has been less, the destruction is greater than the tsunami because it’s affected a far larger area,” she said.