Cyclone Evan hits Fiji: 'This will be much worse'

Fiji residents are bracing themselves as Cyclone Evan makes its presence felt.

Thousands of people have taken shelter in the region as Tropical Cyclone Evan batters the area with winds of up to 185km/h.

Up to 400 New Zealanders also hunkered down in evacuation centres, with Cyclone Evan increasing from category 3 to 4 as it made its way towards Fiji.

Pacific Harbour resident Michael Thoms, who lives 40 minutes from Suva on the edge of where Evan is set to hit hardest, said today he'd just watched a tree in his backyard "take off''.

Mr Thoms said Cyclone Evan was set to be more severe than Cyclone Bebe, which hit the region in 1972 and killed 18 people.

"Quite definitely this will be much worse than that one, I feel very sorry for the people up North on the Vanua Levu side.''

Cyclone Kina in 1993 killed 23 people in the region and left thousands homeless.

Mr Thoms said the wind was lashing the side of his house and he was staying indoors.

His family were in New Zealand for Christmas.

He said he was concerned about the islands of Wallis and Futuna, between Fiji and Samoa.

"The storm has passed right over the top of them, 1500 people live on those two islands -I believe they have lost contact, no doubt they are trying to establish contact again,'' said Mr Thoms.

"The outcome there may be a very sad affair''.

Joanna Underwood of Nadi said they still had power but were forced to stay indoors. She had eight family members at her home and friends who had flood-prone homes were arriving.

"We have nothing else to do here at the moment except stay inside and watch the wind blow everything outside.''

She said the wind was really starting to blow hard and trees outside were bent over.

"It's really gusting, but this is only the beginning of it - the rain has not really started here in Nadi, but once it comes we will then have lots of it.''

Mrs Underwood said she expected some homes in Nadi would be destroyed as the wind picked up and flooding began.

Searchers are now looking for 10 missing fishermen off Samoa after another boat was confirmed missing today.

A New Zealand Air Force P3 Orion and a French Navy aircraft had already been searching for up to eight fishermen missing in three boats since Tropical Cyclone Evan struck Samoa on Friday.

A Maritime New Zealand spokesman said today that another boat had been confirmed as missing, taking the total number of missing men to 10.

Two men had so far been found.

The search for the fishermen had continued today.

Cyclone moves north

WeatherWatch has reported Evan has been upgraded to a top-of-the-scale category five cyclone, but the Fiji Meteorological Office has said that Evan remained a category four cyclone, The Fiji Times has reported.

At 11.30am the MET Office said it had not yet reached the top-of-the-scale category five cyclone.

Tropical Cyclone Evan was still moving north.

This morning it had reached the northern island of Vanua Levu as its winds buffered populated areas, WeatherWatch.co.nz said.

Head weather analyst Philip Duncan said the powerful cyclone was just offshore but that meant the worst of the winds - which wrap around the centre - were roaring across populated places.

"This deadly tropical cyclone will be catastrophic for some communities and low lying islands. This is about as serious as it gets".

Have you been affected by Cyclone Evan? Send your photos and videos here.

The general manager of Treasure Island resort, in the Mamauca Islands, Scott Walton, said the gusts are starting to pick up at the resort

"I think we're just starting to experience the front end of it. The eye of it should pass near us in the next two to three hours."

Mr Walton said the last of the guests were airlifted from the island this morning, leaving staff hunkered down in the resort's main restaurant.

Storm surges on the island are expected to be no higher than 4 metres, so the restaurant should be safe 10 metres above sea-level.

"We're pretty confident it is now just a matter of playing scrabble and watching DVDs till it is all done."

Fiji said this morning it had mobilised emergency response teams, 300 disaster relief centres, and the police and military.

It was feared Evan could be as devastating as Cyclone Kina, which killed 23 people and left thousands homeless in 1993.

Low-lying areas were expecting flooding, with storm surges threatening to completely cover some islands.

Mr Key said the Government was bracing itself to hear what destruction would be caused in Fiji.

"But look, in the end New Zealand will need to give support,'' he told TVNZ's Breakfast programme.

"That support will come in a number of forms. I suspect money actually in parts, but in a number of areas.''

About 2700 tourists in Fiji's western outer islands, the Yasawas and Mamanucas, had moved to the main island of Viti Levu or returned home early.

Tourism Fiji said this morning there were still rooms available for people seeking shelter.

The 1900 passengers booked on cancelled flights today have found accommodation until departures are rescheduled and Nadi Airport reopened.

New Zealand actress Nicole Thompson, who is holidaying on Denarau Island, near Nadi, said many began preparing for the storm last night.

"The majority of the marina shops and restaurants began bunkering down last night when the island was extremely still. [It] was hard to think a cyclone was on its way yesterday as it was very eerie and quiet,'' Ms Thompson said.

"All the large boats in the marina have left the port and headed just out to park up their boats in the mangroves.

"We are meant to leave this afternoon to head back to Auckland but Air New Zealand has estimated our flight to be changed from this afternoon at 2.20pm to 4.30pm tomorrow. Flooding of the streets in Nadi is expected, and after the devastating floods in March I hope all those lovely people in there are keeping safe.''

Four people have been confirmed dead and up to eight are missing after the cyclone struck Samoa on Thursday.

The search resumed this morning for eight fishermen missing from three boats off Samoa with an Air Force P3 Orion and a French Navy Guardian aircraft covering about 4800 square kilometres of ocean.

In Samoa, Mr Key said an Orion was helping establish the amount of damage.

"There's some hope it might not be as bad as they originally thought, but then there's damage to other parts of the island that they didn't think had sustained damage,'' Mr Key said.

Cyclone Evan is expected to reach New Zealand as a weakened storm by the weekend, climate scientist Professor Jim Salinger said.

"By 1am on Sunday 23 December the American GFS weather forecasting model has the cyclone 500km due north of Auckland, affecting Northland and drifting slowly south,'' he told Science Media Centre.

The system would no longer be classified as a cyclone but could still deliver strong winds and heavy rain.

THREAT TO HOMES

Low-lying areas were expected to be flooded, with storm surges threatening to completely cover some islands.

Tourists in Fiji's western outer islands, the Yasawas and Mamanucas, had moved to the main island of Viti Levu or returned home early.

Evacuation centres were last night activated in the Fijian province of Bua, on the west of Vanua Levu, the Fiji Times reported.

There were no reports of flooding last night but people were moving in to the centres in Nabouwalu and Nawaca villages for safety.

Strong winds were reported last night in Labasa and Savusavu, where one resident reported blackouts.

Yesterday a group of 10 students from Christchurch's Middleton Grange High School joined others camped out at Nadi International Airport.

Three were able to secure a flight home but the rest of the group were forced to check into a hotel to wait out the storm.

Linda Vanderpyl, whose daughter Lucy is part of the group still in Fiji, said she hadn't spoken to her daughter but understood they were in good spirits.

"They were on Bounty Island for a night, they took them off there ... I think they should be fine. I was pleased when they got off the smaller island.

"If it's as big as they say, it could be quite devastating ... the three [students] that took off are the most nervous of them, so they've got them safely home.''

Evan was likely to reach New Zealand by the weekend, Professor Jim Salinger, climate scientist and visiting professor at Stanford University, told Science Media Centre.

"By 1am on Sunday 23 December the American GFS weather forecasting model has the cyclone 500 km due north of Auckland, affecting Northland and drifting slowly south," he said.

The system would no longer be classified as a tropical cyclone, however it could still cause strong winds and heavy rainfall.

MetService said the ex-tropical cyclone may bring strong winds and rain to Northland, Auckland and the Coromandel Peninsula from late on Friday. It said a warning is unlikely to be issued before Friday, but conditions may reach warning levels over the weekend.

Meanwhile, the Orion's search for eight fishermen missing from three boats off Samoa was due to resume this morning.

The Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand (RCCNZ) said both the Orion and the French Navy had searched the coast and sea area south of Samoa yesterday, but there was no sign of the men.

Samoan authorities had advised that a hull spotted by the Orion on the island of Apolima had been there for some weeks, and was not one of targets of the current search.

The RCCNZ was awaiting information from the skipper of one of the missing vessels who reached the island of Monono.

A sighting of a hull floating 45km west of Monono was yet to be confirmed as one of the boats being sought.

INCREASED INTENSITY

The deadly storm, which yesterday increased intensity from category 3 to 4, was forecast to lie about 115km southwest of the Yasawas Islands and 185km north-northeast of Nadi about 6.30am, the Fiji Meteorological Service said.

Average winds in the centre of the cyclone were expected to reach 185kmh, with momentary gusts of 270kmh.

Four people have been confirmed dead and up to eight are missing after the cyclone struck Samoa on Thursday.

More than 400 New Zealanders had registered with the High Commission in Fiji, acting head of mission Phillip Taula told Radio New Zealand.

"The advice to any New Zealanders currently in Fiji is to follow any instructions issued by local authorities and to keep their family in New Zealand informed of their wellbeing," he said.

"We're encouraging any New Zealanders in Fiji to register with us."

New Zealanders in Fiji were asked to check the Government's safe travel website.

The military commissioner for northern Fiji, Lieutenant Colonel Ilai Moceica, imposed a curfew from 8pm to 6am, the Fiji Times reported.

According to Fiji Live, 2534 Fijians were in 31 evacuation centres overnight, and power was out in parts of Labasa, in the northern part of the island of Vanua Levu.

That included the Labasa Corrections Facility and the local barracks.

Government facilities were using back up power arrangements.

Fiji Live said 80 military personnel and 40 police were heading to the area ahead of the cyclone, and movement would be restricted today.

The cyclone has forced the cancellation of a number of Air Pacific and Qantas flights between Apia, Nadi and Auckland today.

Tourism Fiji said about 2700 tourists were relocated to the main island from outer islands yesterday ahead of the storm.

All holiday makers booked on scheduled flights yesterday have left Fiji, while the 1900 passengers booked on cancelled flights today have been found accommodation until flight departures are rescheduled once Nadi Airport reopens, the agency said.

"All precautions have been taken to ensure the safety of international visitors," Tourism Fiji said in a statement.

New Zealand actress Nicole Thompson was holidaying on Denarau Island, and said so far this morning there had been "plenty of rain".

"The majority of the marina shops and restaurants began bunkering down last night when the island was extremely still. [It] was hard to think a cyclone was on its way yesterday as it was very eerie and quiet. All the large boats in the marina have left the port and head just out to park up their boats in the mangroves," she told herald.co.nz.

"We are meant to leave this afternoon to head back to Auckland but AirNZ has estimated our flight to be changed from this afternoon at 2.20pm to 4.30pm tomorrow. Flooding of the streets in Nadi is expected and after the devastating floods in March I hope all those lovely people in there are keeping safe."

A New Zealand journalist on holiday at The Hilton in Denarau, Marc Hinton, told Newstalk ZB people would be served breakfast at the hotel, but after that guests and staff were on strict instruction to take shelter and wait it out.

He said it was like the calm before the storm.

"The message has definitely gone out, the cyclone's on its way (and) will hit land here soon. So everyone's being encouraged to get provisions.

"We went through Nadi town, it was pretty much like a ghost town, everything was starting to be locked up, everything was being bolstered down that could be."

Mr Hinton said 95 per cent of the restaurants and shops in Nadi closed late yesterday afternoon.

The Fiji Government said it was working with the tourism industry to co-ordinate preparation and recovery efforts as the cyclone approaches.

"We are concerned about the capacity of this cyclone and have activated and mobilised our emergency response teams, disaster relief centers, police and military forces," Ministry of Public Enterprises, Communications, Civil Aviation & Tourism Permanent Secretary Elizabeth Powell said.

"The safety of our community and our international guests is our main concern, and we have established and stocked 300 emergency centres - should they be needed."

- nzherald.co.nz, Newstalk ZB, APNZ

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