SUVA, Fiji — International tourists began fleeing cyclone-devastated Fiji on Monday as the death toll from the most powerful storm to ever hit the Pacific island nation jumped to 17.
Aid agency Care Australia confirmed the body count had risen steeply from six previously, with fears it will continue to climb after aerial photographs revealed entire villages had been flattened.
"Care Australia can confirm that figure of 17 dead," a Care spokesman said after a briefing with disaster management officials in the Fijian capital
Severe tropical cyclone Winston, the first category five storm in Fiji, hit overnight Saturday, packing wind gusts of 325 kilometres per hour.
No immediate breakdown of the fatalities was available but the Fiji Broadcasting Corporation reported many were from the hard-hit west of the country and seven fishermen were missing at sea.
The cyclone, the strongest ever recorded in the southern hemisphere, flattened scores of homes, crippled infrastructure and forced terrified residents to shelter in evacuation centres.
Photographs taken from a Royal New Zealand Air Force plane showed the devastation wrought on remote villages that bore the brunt.
Many homes were reduced to piles of kindling, with roofing and furniture strewn about by winds that were strong enough to strip leaves and branches from trees.
Oxfam's Pacific regional director Raijeli Nicole said the scale of the disaster would only become apparent when communications were restored with such remote communities.
"The Fijians are desperately trying to repair severed lines of communication, but they hold grave fears that the news waiting for them will be dire," she said.
"Given the intensity of the storm and the images we have seen so far, there are strong concerns that the death toll won't stop climbing today and that hundreds of people will have seen their homes and livelihoods completely destroyed."
International tourists caught up in the disaster began to leave as flights resumed at Nadi airport after a two-day suspension.
Air New Zealand confirmed one of its aircraft departed at 9:30am (2130 Sunday GMT) and other carriers including Jetstar, Virgin Australia and Fiji Airways were also expected to begin operations again. — AFP