Thousands flee as cyclone batters Fiji

Emergency crews repairing a bridge damaged in recent floods near the town of Singatoka in Fiji. (Neil Sands, AFP)
Emergency crews repairing a bridge damaged in recent floods near the town of Singatoka in Fiji. (Neil Sands, AFP)

Suva - Thousands of people fled to evacuation centres in Fiji on Monday as a powerful cyclone lashed the Pacific nation, causing power outages and flash flooding, officials said.

Tropical Cyclone Evan pummelled the main island Viti Levu with winds exceeding 200km/h, bringing down trees, blocking roads and forcing all flights to be grounded at the popular tourist destination.

But Fijian authorities said there had been no reported casualties from the category four storm by late on Monday, unlike in neighbouring Samoa, where it killed at least four people late last week and left another 10 missing.

Government spokesperson Sharon Smith-Johns, who earlier on Monday told Fijians to "prepare for the worst", said emergency planning appeared to have paid off, including moving hundreds of tourists from luxury resorts on outlying islands.

She said about 3 500 people were sheltering in well-stocked evacuation centres, locals appeared to be heeding warnings to avoid travel and all non-essential government personnel had been ordered to remain at home.

"We've had a week to prepare for this, so we're as prepared as you can be," she told Radio New Zealand.

Smith-Johns said that while the lack of early casualties was "encouraging", the cyclone would continue to batter the west coast of Viti Levu overnight and there was no room for complacency.

"The extent of the damage I don't think we're going to know until tomorrow morning when we wake up and see how badly it has hit," she said.

Meteorologists said the cyclone, packing gusts of up to 270km/h near its centre, was 30km offshore from Nadi, site of the main airport, where winds were reaching 200km/h.

The Joint Typhoon Warning Centre said Evan could generate 12m swells, creating a major flooding concern for authorities with high tide due at 22:00 local time.

Nadi was swamped by another cyclone that killed five people in April and major flooding in the area last January claimed 11 lives.

The cyclone is thought to be the strongest to threaten Fiji since Cyclone Kina, which killed 23 people and left thousands homeless in 1993.

Relief agencies were still assessing damage to remote islands in Samoa, where the New Zealand Rescue Coordination Centre is overseeing a search for fishing boats that failed to return to port Friday.

The centre initially believed three boats carrying eight men were missing but lifted the figure on Monday to four boats and 10 men.

Rescue coordinator Geoff Lunt said there had been no sighting of the boats and debris from the cyclone was creating difficult search conditions.

"There is a lot of flotsam in the ocean which makes the visual search quite challenging but the aircraft will be coordinating their efforts to ensure the search area is thoroughly covered," he said.

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