Cyclone Winston leaves a path of utter destruction in Fiji
LAST week Catherine Matheson and fiance Sean Lim were enjoying beautiful sunsets on the beaches of Maui Bay in Fiji.
Last night, they were still coming to terms with the devastation they saw around them in the aftermath of Cyclone Winston.
Yesterday morning, people were waking up to scenes of utter destruction after the category five cyclone battered the South Pacific nation with wind gusts as strong as 325kmh and waves up to 12m high.
Five casualties had been confirmed by Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama after a briefing with the National Disaster Management Office yesterday afternoon.
There have been reports entire villages had been completely flattened and the Fijian Government declared a state of natural disaster and issued a curfew for the whole of Fiji, taking effect from 6pm Saturday, to allow fallen trees and powerlines to be cleared to make the streets safe.
Although they were yet to be allowed out of their hotel on Denarau Island, Miss Matheson and Mr Lim were still processing what had happened.
The stunning location was perfect for the lovebirds, who had become engaged just before they boarded the plane.
Miss Matheson said the first she knew of the approaching tropical cyclone was getting messages from friends in Australia.
She had attempted to book an earlier flight home once she realised the extent of the approaching cyclone, but found all airlines were completely booked out.
Flights to and from Fiji are yet to resume.
"We were supposed to fly out early Sunday morning, but the wind on Thursday night gave us the nudge to change accommodation to something more solid and closer to the airport," she said late Saturday.
"The little place we stayed didn't seem to know much and didn't mention anything to us until Thursday night.
"We had hardly slept a wink.
"A couple of times I thought the balcony might take flight."
The couple made it into a resort on Denarau Island, despite the surge in holidaymakers having the same idea and wanting to move closer to developed areas with more infrastructure.
"We were very well-informed here with constant updates via our room TVs, information briefings in the events room and info posted in the entrance," Miss Matheson said.
"They told us to keep power use to a minimum as main power would cut out early (which it did about an hour after they told us) and we would then be relying on the generator.
"They told us the usual, like stock up on food, (know) where the torches were in our room, have plenty of water on hand and they even delivered food packages to us around 9pm (Fiji time) to tide us over in case we had to stay in our rooms until dinner the next night.
"They were sandbagging and moving all loose articles inside from early Saturday. I thought they prepared very well."
Hotel guests were locked down in their rooms from 9.30pm Saturday until noon yesterday.
Concerned for the welfare of the staff and their families, Miss Matheson was assured staff had been able to move their families to safety shelters before coming into work.
Their hotel was one of the newest on the island and was therefore one of the sturdiest, but Miss Matheson said it was still terrifying listening to the storm as it passed overhead.
"I know everyone says it sounds like a freight train passing outside, but I can now say it certainly does," she said. "To look out our window around 11pm here, the palm trees looked like they were in the direct path of a jet engine.
"I'm amazed they are still standing this morning.
"I'm actually pretty concerned for the people in Maui Bay as I didn't see them preparing like other regions that we drove through were."
Another big downpour and lightening storm yesterday morning flooded the nearby golf course and delayed people from beginning to assess the damage.
More than 1300 Australians registered with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade are now waiting to see when they can return home.
With more than 340,000 Australians visiting Fiji each year, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said she expected the actual number of Aussies there to be much higher.
"I have been in touch with my counterpart (in Fiji) and I have offered Australia's support and we have in place pre-positioned supplies in Suva that are available," Ms Bishop told ABC's Insiders.
"I have also offered the ADF to send a P-3 Orion so we can carry out aerial surveillance, particularly in the outer-lying islands and do a needs assessment.
"At this stage, I believe, the Fijian Government is coming to terms with the damage."
Oxfam's regional director for the Pacific Rajeli Nicole, based in Suva, reported flooding and "terrifying winds".
"It's very unnerving sitting in your house and hearing trees fall and crash all around you," Ms Nicole said.
"Many people outside the main urban centres live in simple structures, so there are fears the damage is likely to be significant right across Fiji.
"We'll start to get a picture of what this nation has to deal with."
Save the Children Fiji CEO Iris Low-McKenzie said she had never experienced anything like Cyclone Winston.
"The noise was frightening as roofs were blown off homes and trees were ripped out by their roots," she said.
A humanitarian response co-ordinator will be deployed from Australia as soon as flights allow.
How you can help
Oxfam - http://www.oxfam.org.au/icf
Red Cross Australia - http://www.redcross.org.au
Australians who are unable to reach their friends or family in Fiji and hold concerns for their welfare are urged to contact the Consular Emergency Centre on 1300 555 135.