TROPICAL Cyclone Winston, which smashed into the island archipelago of Fiji on Saturday, is now believed to have killed at least 29 people.
The death toll from the category five cyclone continued to rise yesterday as devastating aerial images surfaced, providing the first real glimpse of the force of the horror storm.
The images, taken by the New Zealand Air Force over the townships of Koro, Lau, Taveuni and Rabi, and other parts of Fiji’s Eastern and Northern Divisions, show entire communities razed.
Home after home has been reduced to rubble, after being battered by 12 metre high waves and wind gusts of up to 330 kilometres an hour.
Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama has deployed the military and police services to some of the hardest rural and maritime communities, who remain without access to critical infrastructure.
“There are Fijians out there who are without water, without a roof over their heads, without food and without essential services, it is our duty to determine their needs and provide them with the support they need as soon as possible,” Mr Bainimarama said.
The country’s national disaster management office late yesterday confirmed the death toll had now exceeded 20 and fears remained widespread it would continue to increase.
Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop yesterday praised the Fijian government for its handling of the crisis and committed an immediate $5 million assistance package.
The immediate relief funds will help get food and supplies to survivors who remain displaced in evacuation centres.
More than 5,800 Fijians in the island nation’s Western Division alone are held up in 61 evacuation centres, all with very limited resources.
Ms Bishop said as the extent of Tropical Cyclone Winston’s damage remains unknown, Australia is standing by to provide further assistance.
“Australia’s thoughts are with the people of Fiji, particularly those who have lost family and friends as a result of Tropical Cyclone Winston, the largest recorded cyclone to hit the country,” Ms Bishop said.
Australian Red Cross aid worker Susan Slattery, who is based in Suva, told News Corp Australia that a large number of Fijian towns remain without power, safe water supplies and communication systems.
Ms Slattery said everyone involved in the relief and recovery effort was concerned about the rising death toll.
“As we get more and more information there is a real possibility that number will continue to rise,” she said.
“I think the picture is becoming clearer and clearer, as we get access to some of these communities, that the relief, rescue and recovery effort will be a long road.”
Fiji’s Water Authority began issuing water rations to some communities late last night amid fears of a critical shortage in safe water supplies.
UNICEF Australia said it believes more than 60,000 people, including 26,000 children, were living in areas near the eye of the cyclone.
The aid organisation has launched a Children’s Emergency Appeal, to provide sanitation kits, and critical education and health supplies to some of the cyclone-ravaged communities.
Government-led emergency response teams were also deployed to the island of Koro yesterday, where at least one elderly man was killed, to provide medical services and temporary shelter to the many Fijians left homeless by the disaster.
The Department of Foreign Affairs again cautioned Australians to rethink travel plans to Fiji, warning of widespread damage across Fiji, including to buildings, roads, telecommunications, electricity and water infrastructure.
A 30 day nationwide state of emergency has been declared, and flood warnings remain in place in some areas.
Alana Lucarelli, from Noosa on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, was among more than 1300 Australians caught up in the cyclone, spending a nerve-wrecking Saturday night in the Grand Ballroom of the Sofitel Hotel on Denarau.
Ms Lucarelli told News Corp Australia the mood on the island remained eerie yesterday, as the sun once again came out.
But as the first holiday makers from Australia and other foreign countries returned home yesterday, Fijians were told to limit their movements as much as possible.
Local Fijian media said authorities had received multiple reports of looting and attempted robbery at the height of the cyclone.