Airlines suspended flights into and out of Fiji, and thousands took refuge in evacuation centers as officials warned that Tropical Cyclone Evan could be the worst storm to hit the island in two decades.
Evan struck the Samoan capital of Apia last week as a Category 1 cyclone, killing at least four people while leaving some 4,000 others homeless. Over the weekend, it grew into a monster Category 4 storm, packing maximum sustained winds of 130 mph. Meteorologists recorded gusts of up to 170 mph Monday, which, combined with heavy rain, is expected to ground planes at Nadi International Airport through at least Tuesday morning.
One of the Pacific’s biggest tourist centers, Fiji is especially popular with Australians. Some 2,100 Aussies were registered with the government as being in Fiji over the weekend. Many more unregistered tourists are believed to be stranded in the country after airlines ceased operations Monday. Fijian tourism officials said about 2,700 visitors were evacuated from outlying islands, while others fled their resorts for hotels closer to Nadi International Airport to wait out the storm.
A Fiji government spokesperson said some 3,500 tourists and locals sought shelter in 60 evacuation centers after the military government warned people to prepare for the absolute worst. Evan, which struck the western side of Fiji’s main island, Viti Levu, Monday afternoon, is expected to be the most destructive storm to hit Fiji since Cyclone Kina in 1993, but government spokesperson Sharon Smith-Johns said the nation was ready.
“We’ve had a week to prepare for this, so we’re as prepared as you can be,” she told Radio New Zealand. “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."
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Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama was less blasé.
“I cannot stress enough how serious this is,” he told the nation just before Evan hit. “Every Fijian will be affected, and we must take preventative steps now.”
Tropical Cyclone Evan struck Fiji just before one of the island nation’s busiest weeks. Thousands of tourists are expected to visit the tropical paradise over Christmas and New Year’s Eve, though many have been warned to check the fine print on their travel insurance policies as they monitor the storm and its aftermath.
In the days to come, the governments of both New Zealand and Australia have pledged to help Fiji with financial aid, as well as expert personnel and supplies.
“We’re going to work with other nations, including New Zealand and France, in doing what we can to save lives and support search and rescue,” Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr said from Canberra.
It could be several days until the full extent of the storm damage in both Samoa and Fiji is known due to the difficulty of reaching outlying islands.