Australians in Fiji have described the “harrowing” experience of Tropical Cyclone Winston, thought to be the biggest storm to ever hit the Southern Hemisphere.
Aid agencies and government officials are assessing the damage caused by the category five cyclone after strong winds and high seas pummelled the island nation, causing widespread damage.
The death toll from the storm has risen to six, while many cities are still without power and running water.
In one region alone – Fiji’s eastern division – 150 houses had been destroyed and 60 others damaged, the United Nations said.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop told the ABC’s Insiders program at least 1300 Australians were registered with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade as being in Fiji but the number was expected to be much higher.
Canberra residents Shea and Neil Price were holidaying on the island of Matamanoa before evacuating to the main island of Viti Levu as the eye of the storm tracked towards them.
Their room in a hotel in tourist hub Nadi was evacuated after Winston made landfall on Viti Levu and residents spent the night in the ballroom.
“I was very scared and in fear for my life,” Mr Price said.
“Being told a category five cyclone was going to hit us directly and all we could do was sit and wait, that was hard.
“I’ve watched far too many tropical cyclone movies, I think, and I was very worried about being in a category five which was apparently the worst in Fiji history. We were expecting the worst.”
Nadi, although experiencing extremely high winds and torrential rain, escaped passing under the eye of the storm directly and Mr Price said the guests’ fears were allayed in the early hours of the morning when they were allowed back in their rooms.
Melbourne couple Jeremy and Nicky Bree were also evacuated from diving destination Matamanoa back to the mainland, finding a hotel in Denarau.
Mr Bree said although their hotel held up under the wind – which at the centre of the cyclone reached up to 330 kilometres per hour – surrounding trees were ripped out of the ground.
“It was pretty amazing just looking out and seeing the wind gusts just absolutely buffeting the trees,” he said.
“The noise around was something I’ve never heard before, it was a real harrowing whine that came through. It was pretty amazing.
“We closed everything up and just waited it out. There was not much more we could do from there.”
Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said officials were working urgently to “assess and address the damage in our maritime regions”.
Aid agencies said they feared the death toll would continue to rise as they began to survey the full extent of the damage.
Flights out of Fiji to resume Monday
Jetstar, Virgin Australia and Fiji’s national carrier Fiji Airways cancelled all flights in and out of Nadi airport before the cyclone hit on Saturday.
The official advice from the Australian government still remains “reconsider your need to travel” to Fiji due to the impact of Cyclone Winston.
Virgin updated its Monday flight details about 4.50pm on Sunday, giving relief to stranded tourists.
People whose flights were cancelled will be provided with updated flight details, Virgin said in a statement.
The Brees were put on a flight for Monday morning which had not been cancelled.
“All going well, as long as this wind dies off between now and then, I’m sure the airport will reopen and let us out, so I’m hoping that booking stays,” Mr Bree said.
Fiji Airways advise passengers due to the destruction caused by the cyclone, some services out of Nadi on Monday may operate without its regular catering.
Air New Zealand cancelled flights in and out of Nadi on Sunday but said scheduled services would resume on Monday.
Jetstar’s flights between Sydney and Fiji remained cancelled for Monday.
A decision on Jetstar’s Tuesday flights will be made on Monday.
There has been no official assessment of damage done to Nadi airport but early reports indicated the infrastructure was spared any long-lasting damage.
“We’re being looked after. I wouldn’t call it a holiday, I’d call it an experience, that’s for sure,” Mr Price said.
“I think there’s a lot more people a lot worse-off in some of the villages, so we’re very lucky to be here and being looked after.”