Fiji cyclone death toll reaches 29 after island 'flattened'
WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — An island in Fiji took a direct hit from a powerful cyclone as the death toll climbed to 29, officials said Tuesday.
Government spokesman Ewan Perrin told Radio New Zealand that Koro Island had been "pretty much flattened" by Cyclone Winston over the weekend and that eight bodies were found there Monday.
He said there were very few buildings left standing on the island, which is home to about 4,500 people.
Winds from Cyclone Winston, which tore through the Pacific Island chain Saturday and early Sunday, reached 177 miles (285 kilometers) per hour, making it the strongest storm in Fiji's recorded history.
Getting emergency supplies to the group's far-flung islands and remote communities most affected by the cyclone has been the Fiji government's top priority.
United Nations Under-Secretary-General Stephen O'Brien said in a statement he was concerned by the devastating impact the cyclone was having on Fiji.
"Whole villages have been destroyed, homes and crops have been damaged, power lines have been cut and more than 8,100 people are currently sheltering in over 70 evacuation centers," O'Brien said.
O'Brien said Fiji was leading the response and had asked for international help. Australia has so far pledged 5 million Australian dollars ($3.6 million) in aid and New Zealand has pledged 2 million New Zealand dollars ($1.3 million).
Two vessels carrying medical supplies, food and water were due to arrive at Koro Island on Tuesday. Perrin said crews on the boat would build temporary shelters for people on the island whose homes had been destroyed.
Home to 900,000 people, Fiji has more than 100 inhabited islands, and authorities are still having difficulty communicating with some of the more remote islands in the wake of the cyclone.
Phone communications have been rapidly restored in many areas but in other areas the damage was severe and would take longer to fix, Perrin said.
He said the electricity network across Fiji remained patchy, and in some cases power had been deliberately cut to prevent further damage. He said clean water was also a challenge, and people were being asked to boil their water, treat it with chemicals or drink bottled water.