International relief supplies began arriving in cyclone-ravaged Fiji yesterday, as reports emerged of widespread destruction in isolated parts of the Pacific nation.
Officials said there were estimates that half the buildings in the eastern Lau group of islands had been destroyed or badly damaged by Cyclone Tomas and two villages were believed to have been wiped out.
Aircraft from Australia, New Zealand and France started aerial surveys of the devastation and brought much-needed relief supplies for villages badly hit by the storm.
Fijian Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama, in a national address, called for Fijians to unite in the face of the disaster.
“The winds of Tomas reached up to speeds of ... 240kph. To state the obvious, such winds can only cause devastation,” he said.
“We, as a nation have shown that we have the resilience, the strength to bounce back from such adverse, such hard times,” he said.
New Zealand and Australia each sent a C130 Hercules aircraft packed with emergency equipment, including tarpaulins, tents and water containers after a state of emergency was declared for the north and east on Tuesday.
Aircraft and Fijian naval vessels started distributing the equipment to Fiji’s isolated north and east, which bore the brunt of the category four cyclone — the second strongest on a five point scale — on Monday and Tuesday.
Australia and New Zealand promised A$1 million (US$921,500) and NZ$1 million (US$712,800) as initial contributions to the aid effort.
Fiji-based Pacific deputy representative for UNICEF Tim Sutton said about 150,000 Fijians had potentially been directly affected by Tomas, with Bainimarama describing the damage late on Tuesday as “overwhelming.”
National Disaster Management Office operations officer Anthony Blake said unconfirmed reports painted a bleak picture of the situation in the Lau group, a string of islands in the country’s east with a population of about 11,000.
“We have got reports of at least two villages totally destroyed,” he said.
There have been no confirmed reports of deaths from Lau and residents of at least one of the destroyed villages were able to shelter in caves, Blake said.
“We are hoping there is no loss of life and all the villagers are OK and we will get emergency supplies to them,” he said.
“According to our estimates based on the worst-case scenarios of the track of the cyclone and what has happened in the north, we suspect at least 50 percent of the Lau group has been severely damaged,” he said.
The scale of the destruction and any further casualties looked set to become clearer today and tomorrow after inspections of affected areas.
Only one fatality has so far been confirmed — a woman who drowned in rough seas as the cyclone approached at the weekend — but another emergency official said on Tuesday there had been unconfirmed reports of “a few” deaths.
By yesterday, fewer than 9,000 people remained in evacuation centres throughout the country, down from about 17,000 on Tuesday, Blake said.
The main island of Viti Levu — including the popular tourist region in the west of the island — escaped the worst of the cyclone, along with the western part of the second biggest island Vanua Levu.
“We have been blessed in that our main regions and sectors have not been affected by Tomas,” Bainimarama said.
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