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Tourists describe cyclone horror

Monday 22 February 2016 | Published in Regional


NADI – Australians and New Zealanders in Fiji have described the “harrowing” experience of Tropical Cyclone Winston, thought to be the biggest storm to ever hit the Southern Hemisphere.

Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop told the ABC 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,” Neil 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 Price said the guests’ fears were allayed in the early hours of the morning when they were allowed back to their rooms.

Melbourne couple Jeremy and Nicky Bree were also evacuated from diving destination Matamanoa back to the mainland, finding a hotel in Denarau.

Jeremy 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,” 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.

“We’re being looked after. I wouldn’t call it a holiday, I’d call it an experience, that’s for sure,” 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.”

Elsewhere in Fiji there are reports of entire villages being flattened.

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.

Air New Zealand flights between Nadi and Auckland were also cancelled.

The official advice from the Australian Government still remains “reconsider your need to travel” to Fiji due to the impact of Cyclone Winston.

There has been no official assessment of damage done to Nadi airport but early reports indicated the infrastructure was spared any long-lasting damage.

At the height of the storm, Radio New Zealand spoke to Martinborough woman, Nalini Baruch, in Denerau.

“We’re in a room, it’s very dark, and there are very strong winds around us – it’s quite frightening what’s going on outside,” she said.

She was there with her husband Colin for a long-awaited family reunion. The pair were staying at the water’s edge, and Baruch said the sound was like standing next to a 747 jet.

“We’re really helpless, there’s not much more you can do – our power is out, we’re on a generator and we’re not too sure how long the hotel can support us on that one generator,” she said.

Iris Low-McKenzie, who heads Save The Children in Fiji, lost power just as she spoke with RNZI as the storm approached her, and her family, in Suva.

“We’ve never experienced a category five cyclone so we really don’t know what to expect –but we know that it’s going to be devastating.

“This is extraordinary,” she said as trees tumbled to the ground nearby.

She said people had taken precautions after being able to spend a few days preparing for Cyclone Winston.

But Low-McKenzie said she feared for people in low-lying areas and people in “informal settlements” which had buildings that were of a low standard.

The New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) said that 186 New Zealanders were registered as being in Fiji.

“The ministry has updated its travel advisory for Fiji due to Cyclone Winston to high risk. We now advise against all tourist and other non-essential travel to Fiji,” it said.

Fiji’s Minister for Industry, Trade and Tourism, Faiyaz Koya, said there were no reports of any significant structural damage to the majority of hotels in the main island of Viti Levu, except for some properties in the Rakiraki area.

“We understand that friends and families are very concerned, however, we request everyone to remain calm.

“Cyclone Winston has caused extensive damage to the communications infrastructure, hence, mobile and Internet communications in some parts of Fiji maybe affected. However, communication is active in Suva, Nadi, Denarau and along the Coral Coast.”

Koya said tourists in the country were safe and comfortable.

Air New Zealand has already resumed flights to and from Fiji.

A spokesman said bigger planes would be used for the flights to increase capacity in and out of Fiji. Flights are expected to continue as scheduled for the rest of the week. - PNC